It was probably an advantage for Ed Miliband that people were a bit vague about exactly where he stood when he stood in last year’s Labour leadership election.
Unlike his brother David, he didn’t carry all the baggage of the Blair years—and he underlined this by denouncing the war in Iraq.
After winning the leadership, Ed continued to cultivate this air of vagueness. For example, he said that his review of party policy would start from “a blank sheet of paper”. Although this remark was much derided in the Tory press, it made a certain amount of sense for a new party leader taking over after a bad defeat to keep his options open.
Well, he seems well and truly to have come off the fence now. “Ed Miliband set for collision course with unions over Labour block vote,” headlined last Sunday’s Observer.
Ed denounced “late-night deals thrashed out in locked meeting rooms by a handful of people” in a speech last weekend.
The paper, presumably briefed by Miliband’s staff, interpreted this as a sign that that he intends to reduce the share of the vote that affiliated trade unions exercise at party conferences.
The move followed an interview in the Guardian where Miliband criticised planned strikes by public sector workers to defend their pensions. He said, “I don’t think the argument has yet been got across on public sector pensions as to some of the injustices contained on what the government is doing.
“Personally I don’t think actually strike action is going to help win that argument and I think it inconveniences the public. I think strikes must always be the very last resort.”
Miliband announced his intention to scrap elections for the shadow cabinet. All this has been accompanied by blather dissociating him from the bad old days when the Labour left was too strong—and the bad more recent days of Blair and Brown.
So abolishing the shadow cabinet elections is justified by a “spokesman” thus: “Elections were a legacy from our previous time in opposition and it is a sign that Ed does not want the party to be dragged back to the 80s.”
But this is nonsense. From the inception of the Labour Party, the shadow cabinet (or parliamentary committee) was elected by MPs, although Labour prime ministers always reserved the right of appointment to the real cabinet to themselves.
The old Labour Party was formally a highly democratic organisation in which policy was made at annual conferences and implemented by the elected national executive committee (NEC). In those days the constituency parties were the main base of the left, and the union block vote, wielded by the trade union leaders, preserved the position of the parliamentary right.
During the 1980s Labour leader Neil Kinnock smashed the Labour left. Building on his achievement, Blair dismantled party structures. The conference and NEC were deprived of any real powers, with the ritual of policy-making transferred to the nebulous National Policy Forum.
Ironically, the union block vote became in this situation the last residue of party democracy. With individual membership in freefall and local parties hollow shells, the union leaders became the only way the voice of Labour’s traditional working class base could make itself heard.
Now Miliband wants to weaken this voice and scrap any remnants of party democracy. Vague proposals to allow NGOs to contribute to conference discussion and allow local parties to influence the agenda of the National Policy Forum are positively insulting if one remembers how lively Labour’s grassroots used to be.
Like all Labour leaders, Miliband is running scared of the Tory press and his own right wing. He is particularly defensive because of Labour’s lacklustre performance in the May elections and because he owes his own victory in the leadership elections to union support.
In bending rightwards, Miliband is playing by the rules of the electoral game. But he may be making a big mistake, even in his own terms. We may be at a moment when the working class collective action Miliband condemns is becoming a game-changer.