Ballot papers for the Labour Party’s leadership election were sent out on Wednesday 1 September. As the contest reached its last stages, Tony Blair, while promoting his memoirs, intervened to defend (his) New Labour record and implicitly to back David Miliband over his brother Ed. Blair fears that Labour in opposition could be pushed to the left. He thinks David Miliband becoming leader could stop that. For once Tony Blair is not wrong.
If David Miliband becomes leader it will galvanise those suited careerists in the Labour party and unions who think with fondness about New Labour political “success story” under Blair. They think that notwithstanding such things as Blair’s thoroughly discredited role over the Iraq war; they would just prefer, as David Miliband said “to put that behind us”.
What political strength these people have matters. They are, for example, the Labour council leaders who are pushing through cuts.
David Miliband’s election, as seems likely, would be a disaster. His affinity with New Labour’s past is made clear by the £350,000 he has received in donations — £50,000 from public relations millionaire Anthony Bailey (top client BAE Systems).
In our view maximising the vote for Diane Abbott would put down a marker against David Miliband. Abbott is likely to be the third placed candidate. Transfer votes from Abbott to Ed Miliband, the only candidate that could beat David Miliband, could also help do that. By the same token this could encourage those people in the labour movement who genuinely want to see the back of “New Labour”, who want a more combatative, more “anti-Tory”, and more open and democratic labour movement.
Neither Abbott or Ed Miliband are the candidates class struggle socialists would have wanted to stand in this election. Not by some distance! But anyone in the unions and Labour who is paying attention to the contest, who despaired at New Labour’s neo-liberalism, will want to be well-disposed to Diane Abbott and, even Ed Miliband! We care what those people think and the choices they make. They are the sort of people who could be brought into a campaign to reshape of the labour movement for the better.
In general we care a great deal about important labour movement elections. If we can back candidates, however inadequate, without contradicting our basic principles, we should do so. We make the best actual choices in any given circumstances. But our basic job here is not so much calling for a vote, but mapping a struggle for something better. We say to people who are voting for Abbott or Ed Miliband — your choice makes some sense, but if you want to realise your aspirations for Labour you need to be part of a fight to open up Labour and trade union policy-making structures and to commit the labour movement to opposing the Lib-Con cuts.
We back Diane Abbott as she is the only candidate who had ever gone “against the grain” while New Labour was in power — on such issues as trade union rights and the invasion of Iraq. That differentiated her from all of the other candidates. In the candidate hustings her performance was weak. But she has won some support in Labour’s constituency parties. That is something that could be built on.
Ed Miliband’s left stance didn’t stand up to any close analysis — but he did construct a position which took account of more left wing views in the party and unions. At the end, he was talking about New Labour becoming “fixated” on markets, leading it to become “the party of bankers’ bonuses”. On 28 August he said “Britain’s big question of the next decade is whether we head towards an increasingly US-style capitalism — more unequal, more brutish, more unjust — or can we build a different model, a capitalism that
works for people and not the other way around”.
Ed Miliband has the standard-issue “centre-left” reform capitalism (but not too much) policies of the Labour think tank/campaign Compass: keep the top rate of income tax, yes to a graduate tax, for a living wage and high pay commission. It’s impact over the last years has been in peddling “progressive” policies and advocating “progressive alliances” between Labour and the Liberals.
What makes Ed Miliband’s campaign anything other than only mildly different from that of his brother is the fact he was nominated by the big three unions — Unite, Unison and the GMB. The big unions rightly fear the elder Miliband, as opposed to the younger Miliband, will assume greater and more bureaucratic control over the Labour Party’s organisational structures. That is important. It is a positive reason for union activists to cast a vote for Ed Miliband.
The union leadership’s method of fighting against the “threat” from David Miliband is categorically not that of the union militants. They have probably tied up some sort of deal with Ed Miliband on the future role of the unions in shaping the Labour Party’s policy. That is one possible interpretation behind the GMB’s Paul Kenny grumbling to the Times (27 August) about the how the unions would have to reassess their relationship with Labour if David Miliband gets elected.
Whatever happens, certainly even if Ed Miliband does get elected, the democratic decision making structures for Labour’s members and affiliated unions will not improve as we want them to unless union activists are able to mount a fight. And the fact both Milibands offered an Obama-style apolitical campaigning approach for New Labour (“Change to win” was Ed’s message) — bringing in many more members, (e.g. at cut price subs), and turning them into foot soldiers for Labour, serves to underline our point here.
The fact is ordinary union members know nothing about any “behind the scenes” negotiations by the union leaders and that, beyond the ability to vote in this election (and reportedly 9-10% voted in the 2007 Deputy Leadership election) are uninvolved in the political activity of their trade unions. A campaign to open up democracy in the big unions so that, among other things, political debate is open and transparent, is long overdue.
The differentiation between Ed Miliband and his brother is only a little more than language differences… for now. New political currents may take shape in the labour movement generated by the political turmoil of the biggest attacks on working-class people for decades. Ed Miliband may, or indeed may not, be part of those developments. That’s all in the future. But right now Ed Miliband’s commitment to involving the unions in Labour’s fortunes — in a very general sense — is a positive shift.
Without putting aside any criticism, being aware that we have a lousy set of candidates, and emphasising our key concern here - pushing the unions to actively campaign for the full restoration of democratic decision-making in Labour - we favour a vote for Diane Abbott and a transfer vote to Ed Miliband.