By Stephen MacAvoy
The election of Ed Miliband as Labour leader has dealt a significant blow to the Blairite tendency within the Labour Party. That current failed to regain the party leadership and is further weakened by the withdrawal of David Miliband from frontbench politics. Far from damaging Labour’s electoral chances as a range of Blairites have warned, this actually offers the opportunity to move away from the unpopular policies of the Blair era.
During the three-month Labour leadership campaign, the debate increasingly addressed the failings of New Labour and the polices needed to rebuild Labour’s support. This saw the battle lines between the two Miliband candidates hardened up.
Ed Miliband criticised the previous Labour government’s decision to invade Iraq, its draconian approach to civil liberties, and positioned himself as the more social democratic of the two. He also partially distanced himself from the policy of Alistair Darling, the previous Labour Chancellor, to make public spending cuts sufficient to halve the government deficit in four years, by calling it a starting point.
Ed Balls came forward to argue a coherent alternative economic framework to the spending cuts agenda, calling for increased investment and the priority to be placed on growth. Diane Abbott used her candidacy to challenge the scapegoating of immigrants and the myth that immigration was why Labour lost the election, and placed the issues of Labour’s attitude to US imperialism on the agenda with opposition to the Iraq war and Trident.
In contrast, David Miliband, the candidate backed by the Tory press, fought on the Blairites’ agenda. He insisted on sticking to Darling’s deficit reduction plan and argued that Labour should run for the next general election committed to leaving the current government’s cuts to public services in place. He refused to apologise for the Iraq war.
A battle against Labour shifting its policy is being waged by the Blairites and their allies in the media. During the campaign Peter Mandelson launched very public attacks on Ed Miliband, and Blair intervened to say: “I always took the view that if we departed a millimetre from New Labour, we were going to be in trouble.” He has since weighed into the debate again this week warning against any shift away from New Labour. The latest editorial in Blairite house magazine Progress states: “Attacks on New Labour may win a few votes in the leadership election – but at what cost?… One might have expected that, after a three-year silence, the words of Labour’s most electorally successful leader might be of a passing interest to those who now seek the job”. Whilst former Blair adviser, Tim Allen, has attacked Ed Miliband’s addressing of pay inequality and warned that “bury the lessons of New Labour and you will bury the Labour Party”.
Such Blairite pressure will mount. Concessions to it, as with the decision to appoint Alan Johnson as Chancellor, will weaken the fight against the Tories by undermining the case against cuts.
The leadership results and a range of polls show why this pressure should be ignored.
The Blairite’s media allies have been keen to stress how slim Ed Miliband’s victory was in Labour’s electoral college. They want to undermine his mandate and ignore the fact that in terms of the popular vote Ed secured 29,000 more votes than David Miliband (securing 176,000 votes to 147,000). It was the disproportionate weight given to MPs’ votes that made the result so close.
A recent Yougov poll showed 74% of members backing an increase in the top rate of income tax to 60% on those earning more than £200,000 a year; 52% saying Britain should give up nuclear weapons completely when Trident reaches the end of its life and 66% wanting Labour to pledge to scrap plans for identity cards.
The same Yougov poll also showed that the two politicians who best define the New Labour era – Blair and Mandelson – are the only senior Labour Party figures with negative rating amongst Party members. Ed Miliband can rely on broad support amongst the Labour movement for more social democratic policies and away from the electorally destructive policies of the past decade. There are millions of votes to be won back by doing so.
The Blairites are not able to offer evidence backing up their claim that if Labour adopts a more social democratic framework it will damage its electoral chances. Under Blair’s government, with the economy expanding, the Labour vote fell by four million. Under Gordon Brown’s government, when the economy contracted, Labour lost a further one million votes.