There hasn’t exactly been a wave of national mourning at the news that David Miliband has decided to go to New York run an NGO. His arrogance and the petulance with which he greeted his defeat at the hands of his brother Ed in the Labour leadership elections in 2010 were hardly endearing.
All the same David’s departure from British politics is significant. He was the Young Pretender of the Blairite wing of the Labour Party, who griped at Ed’s criticism of the Iraq War and his refusal fully to embrace austerity. David is throwing in the towel in recognition that his brother’s leadership is, this side of the general election, untouchable.
This has a lot to do with what Ed dubbed the “omnishambles” of the Conservative-Liberal coalition, and Labour’s consistent lead in the opinion polls. The younger Miliband’s growing confidence is shown by the regularity with which he decks David Cameron during Question Time in the House of Commons.
Of course you can argue, as Andrew Rawnsley did in last Sunday’s Observer, that “Labour’s current opinion poll lead of around ten points seems a bit unearned—that is certainly the feeling among some in the shadow cabinet—because it seems to be mostly indicative of disenchantment with the coalition rather than surging enthusiasm for Labour. That leaves the lead potentially vulnerable to an upturn in the economy or an improved performance by the government.”
All the same, the wind is in Labour’s sails for the moment. And the better times aren’t just for the party leadership. For the first time in many years, the fortunes of the Labour left are also improving.
Totally marginalised under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, the Labour left has been one of the driving forces behind the swelling protest movement against the bedroom tax. Owen Jones has gained a prominence as a speaker and a writer that we haven’t seen since Tony Benn’s heyday in the early 1980s. Some 44 Labour backbenchers rebelled against the party whips and voted against the coalition’s bill denying compensation to jobseekers who refused unpaid work.
And there’s organisational muscle behind this revival, in the shape of Unite, Britain’s biggest trade union. Its general secretary Len McCluskey has pushed the union into community organising. Last week he warned that Unite and other unions might stop backing Labour if it failed to break with neoliberalism.
Paradoxically, this revival of the Labour left dovetails with the enthusiastic response that film director Ken Loach’s call for a new party of the left has received.
In a thoughtful piece on the Left Unity website Ed Rooksby has identified several factors behind this.
These are the crisis, a widespread recognition that “Labour is not an effective political vehicle for the organisation of resistance to austerity”, the “Syriza effect” (in other words, the desire to see the Coalition of the Radical Left in Greece replicated elsewhere), and the internal troubles the Socialist Workers Party has been suffering.
The contradiction is less acute that it seems. Loach’s starting point is his new film The Spirit of ’45. This powerfully portrays how the social reforms passed by the postwar Labour government took millions out of misery and how they have come under attack since Margaret Thatcher’s reign in the 1980s.
Defending these achievements—above all the National Health Service—also provides the Labour left with their benchmark. So what we have is, in effect, two different projects for reviving the reformist tradition in Britain.
Both have to be taken seriously. My hunch is that the drive to revive Labour will prove the stronger of the two. This is of course problematic, because all Labour governments—including the one elected in 1945—have chosen to manage rather than transform capitalism. The structures of the party are now so undemocratic that it’s hard to see how any attempt to “reclaim” Labour can hope to succeed.
This makes it all the more important that all those who want to see a left alternative to Labour work together. There are plenty of obstacles in our path as well, but the scale of the crisis and the suffering it is causing demand that we overcome them.