Last week a spokesman for Ed Miliband offered perhaps the strongest denunciation he has made in his nearly three years of party leadership. “Reprehensible” was the word he used, strong stuff indeed, but what great outrage inspired it?
Was it the government’s plans to undermine the Health and Safety Executive and further erode workers rights? Was it the cost of burning Thatcher when so many essential programmes are being cut and thousands are subsisting on foodbanks? Was it the ongoing demonisation of the poorest and most vulnerable in society? Nope, it was none of these.
Len McCluskey, re-elected General Secretary of the UK’s largest trade union, has spoken out against the various Blairites who have spent much of the past three years alternatively undermining Ed Miliband or trying to control him. McCluskey instructed Ed to be bold, to not allow himself to be dictated to by Yesterday’s Men, and to lead Labour into 2015 with a clear and distinct message for the electorate.
The original interview can be read here. None of it strikes me as particularly undermining Ed, or indeed of being “reprehensible” in any way. Instead it speaks true to the values which the Labour Party claims to stand for. Indeed, the denunciation comes across as incredibly hypocritical. A mere few weeks ago, Tony Blair stuck his beak back into British Politics, telling Ed what he should or shouldn’t be doing in far bossier terms. Such interventions merit no rebuttal when they come from someone who hasn’t even been an MP for six years and who is hardly out knocking doors every weekend. But when it comes from the elected leader of millions of lower paid British workers – blasphemy! disloyalty!
McCluskey singled out certain Shadow Cabinet ministers he identified as holding Ed back. Among them were Liam Byrne, shadow secretary of state for work and pensions, and the person most responsible for my leaving the Labour party. To quote McCluskey:
Liam Byrne certainly doesn’t reflect the views of my members and of our union’s policy, I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed’s got to figure out what his team will be.
That’s putting things incredibly lightly. I wouldn’t have been so generous, perhaps going for something more like this. Byrne is responsible for the Labour Shadow Cabinet not sticking up for much-abused claimants of JSA and for those illegally tricked into forced-labour workfare schemes. He is worse than useless.
But it is the hypocrisy of Miliband that is most galling. From his narrow election as party leader in September 2010 until the local elections in 2012, Blairites in the Labour party were actively willing Ed Miliband to fail. The sniped and acted like he was only a temporary leader. They lamented the “lost leader”, the now king-over-the-water, elder brother David. It was anticipated that he would fail, and that they would soon get one of their own back into the leadership. The “opposition” plot-line of the most recent episode of The Thick of It closely followed this anticipated eventuality.
But then Ed met and exceeded expectations. He began to rough up Cameron more often on PMQs. The 2012 locals were a success with Labour exceeding even the expectations talked up by Tory spinners. Suddenly the Blairites went quiet – ‘this man might be the next Prime Minister, better make sure he’s one of our own’ was clearly the thinking. To their credit the extra briefing and support further strengthened his position and the party, although this should have been forthcoming right from the beginning. David Miliband continued to sulk on the back benches until finally buggering off to earn more money elsewhere without the bothersome burden of constituents.
The Blairites continue to hawk a political philosophy and an electoral strategy that is ossified in 1997. The world has moved on. Nonetheless they attack Ed and undermine him whenever he deviates from their orthodoxy, yet not once has he called them “reprehensible”. The propose Tory-lite policies like legitimising xenophobia, or being “tough” on the unemployed, policies which drive away left-wing party members such as my former self, and yet not once has Ed called them out for dividing the party.
Unions are democratic organisations which combined represent millions of ordinary people. Some are affiliated to Labour, some are not. Bashing them is easy politics for the Tories, ever happy to dust off their old book of 1970s myths and clichés It is also tempting politics for a Labour leader too afraid to openly declare left-wing principles and eager to win the support of people and newspapers who will never support Labour in any case. Len McCluskey could have revealed the secrets of world peace and the transmutation of precious metals – he would still have been a Union man and therefore easy fodder for triangulation. Ed also found time this week for a public squabble with George Galloway. Galloway is a contemptible turd of a man on so many levels but he is undeniably popular, principled and left-wing. Again, easy pickings for a leader needing someone to position themselves against.
So we have a Labour leader who is strong-willed and firm in his views, willing to engage in robust debate and to strongly argue his case – provided that his opponent is from the left. Meanwhile the right can snipe all they like, obsessed with the centre ground (defined of course by themselves) and with winning elections and power at all costs.
As a final irony, for all that Ed and the Blairites argue against defining the Labour Party by opposition alone, they may end up finding that they have done just that. The only difference is that it will not be a Labour Party in opposition to the Right, or to the Tory government, or to austerity; but instead a Labour Party stuck in perpetual opposition to the Left, to the unions, and to the long-held principles needs and loyalties of its own members. Will that be a Labour Party worth voting for?