“No more cliques, no more factions, no more soap opera,” announced David Miliband in what proved to be his swansong at the Labour Party conference.
These words were belied by the hysterical fury with which his supporters—their complaints amplified by the media—greeted his brother Ed’s victory in the leadership election.
And this rancour was matched by Ed Miliband’s camp. In a fascinating description in the Guardian of the toxic atmosphere in Manchester by Decca Aitkenhead, we read, “‘We’ll track the bastards down,’ swore an exasperated Neil Kinnock, found patrolling the hotel foyers incensed that dissent had broken out yet again less than 48 hours into a new leadership. ‘And we’ll stamp on them’.”
So it’s factional business as usual in the Labour Party. But what does all this strife signify? In some respects, not a lot. David and Ed may be the sons of Ralph Miliband, a great Marxist intellectual. But, ideologically and politically, they are the products of New Labour.
Such is the crazy world of New Labour that it emerges from the memoirs of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson that Blair regarded David Miliband as a bit too Old Labour for his liking.
Ed does seem to be genuinely slightly further to the left than his brother. But this doesn’t make him Trotsky. The fact that Kinnock, who started the “modernisation” of the Labour Party, supported him is a good indication of the limits of his “leftism”.
Much more important than these ideological nuances is the fact that Ed Miliband was prepared to distance himself from the record of New Labour. Not just of Blair, but, Gordon Brown as well in his conference speech on Tuesday last week.
The fuss about his denunciation of the Iraq War ignores the fact that any rational Labour leader would have done it, simply to get rid of toxic waste inherited from the past.
David Miliband was boxed in both by his own views and by the fact that he has, as foreign secretary, been busy prosecuting the “war on terror” for most of the past three years.
Ed Miliband positioned himself successfully to express the widespread revulsion against New Labour in the working class movement. This stance could also define the party’s opposition to the Conservative-Liberal coalition.
But Miliband will preside over a shadow cabinet and a parliamentary party that voted for his brother and not for him. And he faces a government that has the media baying in its support.
He will therefore come under enormous pressure to prove himself a “responsible” and “electable” leader. This means not calling for the scrapping of Trident, and, of more immediate importance, not going all-out against the cuts. Hence the pro-cuts passage in his conference speech.
Miliband also repeated the most odious theme of the Labour debate immediately after the election by winking at prejudice at immigrants while denying that he was doing this.
But sending out these signals in a conference speech is easy. Things will get much tougher for Miliband. What, for example, if resistance to austerity leads to strike action, as we hope it must?
It’s one thing to denounce “irresponsible strikes” when they’re not happening, quite another when strikes are taking place and, more to the point, being mounted by trade unionists who may well have supported him in the leadership election.
Ed Miliband campaigned in a way that has made him the vehicle of the hopes of those who want not just a break with New Labour, but also a real fight against the coalition. These hopes can help feed mass resistance—but they can also be used to hold it back.
Ralph Miliband described in his classic book Parliamentary Socialism how the Labour leadership opposed any form of militant action against another Tory-dominated coalition during the Great Depression of the 1930s: “It was an opposition which quite deliberately narrowed down its field of political action, and which was content for the most part to go through the motions of parliamentary battle.”
This should serve as a warning for us today.