Ed Miliband, writing for a Fabian Society round-table of leadership contenders, has called for Labour to “escape” from the “comfort zone” of Blairism.
The motivation for this call comes from Labour’s defeat. Although the core vote held up better than expected — especially in the north of England — the data shows a more detailed and worrying picture.
Miliband writes that “Five million votes were lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010, for every one voter that Labour lost from the professional classes ... we lost three voters among the poorest, those on benefits and the low paid ... Add in skilled manual workers, and the differential goes to six to one.” Further, he writes that “We can neither win an election with working-class votes alone - New Labour was right about that — nor can we take it for granted.”
Miliband is attempting to do two things here: to present himself as capable of making a clean break from the rotten legacy of Blair and Brown and to present himself as a “safe pair of hands” to the party and public at large.
The outcome of the election is a complicated picture that cannot be solved with number crunching alone. The data shows a significant shift in working class support away from Labour and in many cases towards the Tories. But in the north, the “core vote” remained loyal to Labour. Labour — leaderless and defeated — is currently running at 33% in the polls.
The key political question, therefore, isn’t just winning or retaining working class votes and support but transforming these into political influence and organisation. On this issue, Milliband writes: “Disconnection from voters, including our working-class base, is not just a product of policy error, it is the result of the hollowing out of the movement and party. The relationship with the trade union movement need to be built from the ground up.”
But this is not clear-cut call for renewing and expanding party democracy. Miliband says merely that Labour needs to “make the most” of the union link. Miliband is enamoured with the organising methods of the Obama campaign. Some of these methods are already being employed by the various campaign teams.
However, the Obama model and the community organising models in the US on which they are based, all appear to be ephemeral, completely divorced from the logic and politics of actual class struggle. Much of the “Yes We Can” movement built during the US presidential election has vanished.
Exactly what Ed Miliband would do as Labour leader, what deal he’s already struck with trade union leaders (Unison, GMB, and Unite are backing him) or indeed with his older brother remains to be seen. If, as seems likely, his version of “working class representation” is rooted in unrepresentative focus groups, short-term mobilisation and classless “movement building” then the real issues facing our class will not be addressed. We should be ready to push for much more than “soothing words”.