From Miliband to Corbyn: Labour struggles to renew itself

To understand the rise of Corbyn, we first need to properly understand Ed Miliband's legacy.

Robin Blackburn
6 August 2015

 Ed Miliband swiftly accepted responsibility for the heavy Labour defeat and resigned. However Labour’s rout should not obscure Miliband’s early successes nor his contribution to the tentative renewal which began while he was leader. Nobody is more passé than a recently defeated politician, with close colleagues queuing up to disavow him. Miliband made many mistakes but he also strove to wrench his party away from the disastrous politics of New Labour, a daunting and difficult task. While Miliband is no doubt as surprised as anyone else by the scope of the Corbyn insurgency his own actions as leader helped to produce it, partly, to be sure, in reaction to his timidity and mistakes, but also in some more positive ways too, including a leadership contest that is awkward and unpredictable, as democracy often is. Miliband’s early coupsMost of the time British Oppositions are in the difficult position of responding to the government and to events. But in his first two or three years Ed Miliband sometimes managed to set an agenda which his opponents could not ignore. In 2011 he supported a back-bench attempt to rein in the Murdoch empire by reducing and separating its TV and press holdings. News International was mired in the phone-hacking scandal. By supporting this back-bench initiative Ed broke with the rotten New Labour tradition of toadying to Murdoch. Cameron was thereby also forced to drop his opposition to the measure or be exposed as a servile Murdoch minion. Miliband had not initiated the campaign but he had backed it at the critical moment. Such defeats for Murdoch are few and far between.Ed scored a different sort of success when he used his leader’s speech at the Labour Party’s 2013 conference to attack the energy companies for exorbitant price rises. They aggravated what he called the ‘cost of living crisis’. He urged the government to introduce an electricity price freeze. By now many millions were suffering from the government’s swinging austerity programme, with average take-home pay lagging inflation down to the most recent times. Miliband’s phrase established an effective and enduring concept and talking point. And for what it was worth the opinion polls registered a modest but steady Labour lead. Ed also reached for a broader theme when he drew a sharp contrast between ‘predatory capitalism’ and ‘productive’ capitalism, with hedge funds in the former category, and responsible and regulated suppliers of needed products and services in the later. He called for taxes on the wealthy and the removal of the hedge funds’ exemption from stamp duty. These measures would furnish timely resources for the NHS. The Economist later explained that it could not endorse Labour despite its valuable support for EU membership. The reason? ‘Labour’s leader wants to remake British capitalism in favour of a fairer society’. (The Economist, 2/5/15). Ed Miliband’s concepts of ‘predatory capitalism’ is somewhat reminiscent of his father’s notion of ‘class war conservatism’ (as outlined by Ralph Miliband in his book of that name). The concepts are different but complementary. The former targets wasteful and unsustainable practices as well as economic exploitation. On the other hand Ralph would warn that capitalism would find spaces – such as tax havens - hidden from the regulators. Nevertheless both approaches highlight the dangers of capitalism unleashed.By 2013 there was a vociferous transatlantic campaign in favour of Western military intervention to overthrow Assad, the Syrian dictator. Ed Miliband was wary of a cause backed by so many of the authors of the Iraq War. Some back-bench Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were equally concerned. The Labour leader was prepared to listen to the government’s case but, to the surprise of friend and foe alike, he eventually urged all his MPs to oppose a motion licensing military action. The government motion was defeated and this had immediate repercussions in Washington. The White House had been agitating for an invasion to oust Assad but now changed its tune, and declined to ask Congress for backing for such a move. The vote in the British parliament had helped the doves check the hawks. For a British opposition leader to have such an impact is rare indeed. In this case it allowed for diplomacy (concerted with Moscow) to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons. According to an editorial in the Financial Times of 2 July this year David Cameron regarded this defeat as the worst moment of his premiership.The Labour leader’s string of coups led the Commons Press Lobby to award him the title of Parliamentarian of the Year in 2013. Coalition leaders were sore but it was fellow Labourites who were most alarmed. Former Labour Cabinet ministers began musing in public that Ed was disloyal to our allies and flirting with populism. We may wonder whether veiled or coded Blairite threats in public, were supplemented by more brutal warnings in private. Miliband appeases Miliband knew how important it was to enter the election with a united party. He was determined to avoid the public divisions that had done so much damage to Labour in the eighties and the Conservatives in the nineties. Ed was anyway proud of the civility that he always strove to promote, notwithstanding the fact that the Shadow Cabinet was composed almost exclusively of former Blairites or Brownites. We will surely learn more when the memoirs are written, but the Labour leader did not startle with any new coups and he reached for more emollient language as the election hove into sight. The Labour Leader’s stance on Syria was to prove quite exceptional. He had earlier backed Western airstrikes on Libya and British engagement – and disengagement - in Afghanistan; in 2014 he backed US and British airstrikes in Iraq which caused much mayhem without defeating ISIS. Nevertheless Cameron remained furious at his defeat over the Syria motion and continued to press lifting the ban, albeit that the enemy has changed – its against Isis now not Assad.Miliband’s domestic options have sometimes been equally compromising. Scottish Labour, a bastion of machine politics, was allowed a virtually free hand, after complaints that it was treated as a branch office. Such a belated move did nothing to ward off the verdict of the Scottish voters. The SNP urged the scrapping of the Trident nuclear submarine programme. The Lib Dems’ stance signaled a willingness to negotiate when it mooted a reduction of the number of nuclear subs from four to three. Ending the whole programme would release huge funds - £90 billion over ten years - to spend elsewhere. But Miliband was adamantly opposed. Labour’s internal policy-police were content. Unilateral nuclear disarmament had long been a signature issue for the Labour Left. But the leader’s stance against it was virtually uncontested. There were a few courageous mavericks in the PLP, like Jeremy Corbyn, but not a visible and vocal leftwing grass roots movement such as had animated Labour in the days of Nye Bevan, Michael Foot or Tony Benn. Without its leftwing Labour was a bird that could not fly. Absent the assertive presence of such a Left Miliband had little hope of taking on the rightwing majority of the PLP even if he had wished to do so. The party’s policy director, Jon Cruddas, later complained that its policy-making process came to a shuddering halt, two years before the election was to take place. We now know that Labour’s membership was restless and growing, and would very probably have approved a more radical course. But back then, in what I now think of as BCE (Before the Corbyn Era), Miliband was still in awe of the ‘New Labour’ coterie and its threats.The Blairites might, for the moment, hold their fire but the same was not true of the press which mercilessly seized on any unfortunate photo and minor stumble to ridicule and diminish the Labour leader. The poll lead narrowed a bit but it seemed that, at least in England, everything was still to play for. In Scotland the prediction that the SNP would sweep the board led Scottish Labour to retreat into its Unionist bunker and to ignore the deep-seated crisis of the UK state. The Labour leadership concentrated its fire on the SNP and let off the Conservatives with warnings that they were alienating Scottish opinion. The Conservatives certainly fear that loss of Scotland would threaten to unravel the UK and diminish its claim to be a great power. But Conservatives, lacking support there for a generation, are not as panicked as Labour by the threat of secession. The voters’ complex verdict On election night it was revealed that a late surge to the Tories had wiped out Labour’s notional lead and given the Conservatives an absolute majority of seats. The Conservatives would be able to form a government by themselves. Since legitimacy is at stake the parties’ share of the vote is also relevant. The Conservatives had attracted 37 per cent of the total vote, while Labour had only 30 per cent. Labour had lost in 48 constituencies it had previously held and retained only one MP in Scotland. The SNP had won 50 per cent of the vote in Scotland, and gained 56 out of 59 seats. The Liberal Democrats had been reduced from 57 to 12 seats, with only one in Scotland, and a share of the total vote that fell from 22 per cent to 8 per cent. Meanwhile 1.1 million Green votes , 4.2 per cent of the total, earned them only one seat. An even more grotesquely disproportionate result for the UKIP saw it awarded one seat – though it had received 3.9 million votes.Looked at as a verdict on the Coalition the results showed a retreat with Conservative gains being more than offset by larger Liberal Democrat losses. Contrary to the impression given by many commentators the Conservative share rose by only 0.8 per cent of the total vote, from 10.7 million votes in 2010 to 11.3 million in 2015. The LibDems had fallen from 6.7 million votes in 2010 to 2.4 million votes in 2015,  losing 15.2 per cent of the total and with a net loss of 49 seats overall. Labour saw its vote rise from 8.7 million votes to 9.3 million. In England alone it attracted a million more votes than in 2010, and saw its share of the total vote rise by 3.6 per cent. Compared with its terrible result in 2010 Labour’s recovery this year was too weak, leaving others – especially the SNP and UKIP - to harvest voter disaffection. UKIP, the rightwing populist party, received nearly 13 per cent of the total vote, boosting its share by 10.7 per cent of the total vote compared with 2010. The complexity of this picture has not been sufficiently recognized. This was a terrible result for Labour because of Scotland and because, overall, it attracted 2 million fewer votes than the Conservatives and suffered a net loss of 26 seats. But the LibDem loss of more than 4 million votes and the UKIP gain of more than 3.5 million also weigh heavily in the overall result. In an awesome massacre of votes, millions of LibDem, Green and UKIP supporters laid down their ballots to enable the Conservatives to rule and Labour to survive. It would be wrong, of course, to conclude that over three million voters switched from the Lib-Dems to UKIP. The constituency pattern suggests considerable ‘churn’ quite apart from the fact that over five years those eligible to vote change. Exit polls enable some broad shifts to be plotted, one of them being what seems to be the changing options of former LibDem voters. Much of Labour’s increased vote stemmed from this source, but there was also a significant shift to the Conservatives.   The Conservative campaign on the ground focused its effort on seizing Liberal Democrat seats with a ruthlessness towards yesterday’s allies that illustrates part of what Ralph meant by ‘class war Conservatism’. The relative success of this policy became apparent when the Conservatives won 20 per cent of those who had voted for the LibDems in 2010, compared with 24 per cent who opted for Labour and 11 per cent who went to the Greens. Overall the LibDems lost two thirds of their former share of the vote. Labour scored well with those aged 18 to 34, especially young women, winning 43 per cent of their votes. Unfortunately less than a half of younger voters turned out to cast their ballot. The over-65s, by contrast, attained a 78 per cent turnout and only 25 per cent voted Labour. The Labour share could have been raised a little if the party had paid more attention to addressing the escalating crisis of elder care.The swelling of the UKIP vote meant that there had been a major contraction of the middle ground in English politics. While Thatcher’s Conservatives never won more than 44 per cent of the total vote the two rightwing parties have now won just under 49 percent of all votes. However these parties are not a bloc, but rivals and antagonists. They have been at one another’s throats and are not potential coalition partners. The Conservative party is par excellence the party of respectable, English, bourgeois hegemony while UKIP is a populist break-away, promising rejection of the EU and cuts to welfare. Ralph Miliband argued in Capitalist Democracy in Britain that ‘first-past-the-post’ promotes a concentration of power in the hands of the potentially hegemonic bourgeois fraction. This is well-illustrated by the Conservative victory and the unhappy fate of UKIP, with its solitary MP and 3.9 million votes. The humiliation of Nigel Farage, the UKIP leader, failing for the seventh time to win a Westminster seat, provoked infighting and recriminations that further weaken the party. The overcrowded centreLabour’’s dismal result was the cue for a chorus of senior Labourites to declare that the party had lurched to the Left and that, as Blair himself put it, British elections are won in the centre ground. Though widely echoed this verdict reflects an ostrich-like inability to see the wider pattern of UK politics which can no longer be read as a two horse race. Labour suffered historic rejection in Scotland because it had sacrificed the welfare state to the warfare state. In England the anti-centrist UKIP took support from Labour well as the Conservatives, portraying the centre parties’ subordination to the EU as the source of all the country’s woes. UKIP’s support comes disproportionately from the swathes of England which have been left behind. UKIP is a party of the radical right, not the centre. Big business does not like this party and generally declined to back it – a few anti-EU City financiers take a different view, and help it pay its bills. The party caters to anti-immigrant feeling, with racial undertones. However, on other issues, it attacks several of the many undemocratic features of the EU and UK. The Liberal Democrats are a genuinely centrist party and they tanked. Their collapse was many voters’ withering response to that party’s coalition with the Tories and backing for austerity. This fatal misstep reversed more than a decade during which the Lib Dems had built support by outflanking Labour on the Left, favouring a rise in income tax, opposing the Iraq war and urging electoral reform. If Labour had won most of those who deserted the Lib Dems it would have won the election. As it was, Labour only achieved this in London and elsewhere Lib Dem votes went to the SNP and UKIP, with only a trickle going to Labour and that some even went to the Conservatives on the principle that its better to engage the organ grinder than his monkey. Labour in 2015 was haunted by a past that it refused to confront. Writing in 1983, Ralph Miliband had this to say about the then Labour leadership: ‘The Labour Party is deeply embroiled in its own troubles. Its leaders are greatly handicapped by their own record in office, and by the fact that Conservative ministers, when challenged over their policies. are able to say ‘You did it first, to which it is not much of rejoinder to say “yes, but not so hard”’ (Class War Conservatism, p. 284) If this hit home in the 1980s it was bang on target in 2010-15.Labour’s key failureThe key issue that sank Labour was, once again, its own record in office. Ed Miliband had been elected Leader because he took his distance from New Labour and its record but this was an unpopular theme with the Shadow Cabinet. The Brownites – and Gordon Brown himself – were utterly opposed to any serious criticism of the economic stewardship of the Blair/Brown governments, with its notorious claim to be ‘relaxed’ about galloping inequality and its empty boast to have ended the cycle of boom and bust. Since it was difficult to praise the measures that fostered the bubble economy the result was an awkward silence. Cameron and colleagues swooped on Labour’s embarrassment to allege that the crisis was the result of the government’s profligate public spending. In reality, of course, the mountainous debts which brought on the financial crisis stemmed from the private sector while the post-crisis spending was essential to prevent an even sharper downturn. Nevertheless Tory spokesmen got away with talking about ‘Labour’s recession’ as if the melt-downs of Wall Street and the City were a mere side-show compared with the blunders of the British government.Martin Wolf in the Financial Times and Paul Krugman in the New York Times wrote piece after piece arguing that it was the indebtedness and speculations of financial institutions that brought on the crisis and bailout. The UK national debt ran at around 37 per cent of GDP in 2006 and, by itself, was no cause for concern. But if all forms of debt are considered – including that of banks, companies and households - then the total ran to five times GDP and was very alarming. The bailout of the banks meant that net government debt doubled to reach 80 per cent of GDP in 2008. Wolf and Krugman also insisted that austerity was making matters worse and weakening the recovery. Neither Ed Miliband nor Ed Balls, the Shadow Chancellor, took up the arguments laid out by these leading economists. Balls avoided any criticism whatever of the Blair/Brown governments (of which, of course, he had been a prominent member). Labour bore much responsibility because it positively facilitated the orgy of financialization, which did so much damage to the UK and US economies. But this is a different proposition from claiming that state spending caused the crisis. Allowing this big lie to gain widespread credence was a decisive defeat for Labour before the campaign had even begun. For their part the Conservatives had also favoured de-regulation but, as Ralph had warned, Labour was not well-placed to point this out.A signature stance of New Labour in the approach to the 1997 election had been a promise to adhere to the Conservatives’ spending plans for the next two years. Ed Balls chose to repeat this assurance in 2012-15. Such a self-denying ordinance made nonsense of Labour’s claim to offer voters an urgent alternative. In Ed Miliband’s case the failure to take up the cudgels may have reflected a wish not to lecture the voters and appear academic. Would the general voting public understand a grown-up discussion of economics? Would it be suicidal to attempt to explain the Keynesian argument? Miliband and Balls are not the only social democrats to decline the attempt. In contrast to this timidity Pablo Iglesias, the leader of Podemos in Spain, has gained credibility by bringing the voters into the real debate. Ralph Miliband was no economist but he always respected the need for robust economic reasoning. When we formed the ‘Independent Left Corresponding Society’, an informal advisory group for Tony Benn, in the mid-1980s – Jeremy Corbyn was a member- Ralph suggested that we invite Andrew Glyn to take part. Glyn was commissioned to set out what would be needed to reduce unemployment by a million jobs a year. Andrew had worked for the Treasury and his pamphlet made use of the Treasury model of the British economy. More generally Ralph was convinced that de-industrialisation and out-sourcing were reaching dangerous levels and endorsed the ‘Bennite’ Left’s work on an ‘Alternative Economic Strategy’ (AES). Much economic writing on Britain since the 1960s has emphasized relative decline and crisis. The radical reconstruction of the Thatcher years and the hectic growth of the City financial complex in the mid and late nineties seemed temporarily to challenge the decline thesis. The dot com bubble of 1999 and after, and the crisis of 2007-8 punctured the prevailing euphoria. Following the crisis seven years of stagnant productivity give the relative decline thesis renewed currency. Shortly after the 2015 election the Bank of England reported that stationary productivity since 2007 meant the average household was 17 per cent - £5000 a year - worse off in consequence. Stagnant productivity was accompanied by relatively low unemployment (at 5.5 per cent). The weak recovery in 2014-5 was due to consumer demand and a housing bubble. It created many new jobs but most of these were in low-income self-employment or in the unskilled service sector. Young people still found it difficult to find proper jobs, were burdened with debt and even those who had jobs could not afford to buy a home of their own. While London and the South East flourished, with a housing boom and buoyant stock market, the rest of the UK festered. With the benefit of hindsight the AES was right both to oppose the dominance of finance capital and to focus on wealth-creation as well as redistribution. It is an error to suppose that only the private sector generates wealth and to ignore what Mariana Mazucatto calls, in the title of her recent book, The Entrepreneurial State. The German economy’s relative buoyancy reflects investment in R & D, using such institutions as the Frauenhofer Institute with its 18,000 researchers and budget of 1.8 billion euros. While the Keynesians have an important case to make concerning the weakness of demand, and the cheapness of capital, the voters’ fear of public debt is not completely irrational. It is certainly wise to channel much public spending to investment - on infrastructure, higher education, new anti-biotics, green technology and other R & D - rather than to household consumption.While drawing on economic expertise Ralph spoke of the need to make socialism the ‘common sense of the age’ and was well-aware that socialist ‘experts’ had something to learn from working people which would improve their plans. The popular belief that there can be no gain without pain may be too indiscriminate but any socializing plan will need to include an element of sacrifice – so long as it for a worthwhile objective. Investing in skills and in research offers the hope of raising productivity as well as supplying a demand-side boost. It is claimed that the language of the Left is obsolete. As I noted above Ed Miliband found it impossible to drag the Labour Party to the Left because the party no longer had a Leftwing which could articulate and support such a move. Yet a party appeared in this election that spoke incessantly about the need for a ‘long term economic plan’ and the need for a party that would reflect the interests of ‘working people’. That party was, of course, none other than David Cameron’s. Flouting Labour’s caution Cameron used factory meetings to inform employees that they deserved higher pay and that this would strengthen the recovery. No-one on the Labour side responded to these provocations, beyond a lame claim that Labour had ‘a better plan’. Another win for ‘class war conservatism’.  The party that really did have elements of ‘a better plan’ was the Greens. Over recent years that the Greens have developed a radical, detailed and wide-ranging economic plan. The 90 page Green manifesto drew extensively on this making it a more substantial document than any offered by the major parties. However it is not always clear how its different parts work together. Natalie Bennett, the Green party leader often did a reasonable job of explaining her party’s ideas but had the misfortune, on one critical occasion, to have a ‘brain fade’ when asked to explain an aspect of the party’s monetary policy. The contest between party leaders in a British general election has a gladiatorial character which is merciless when it encounters human frailty. The Greens should have found a qualified economic spokesperson to present this aspect of their programme. Nevertheless their success in building support shows that voters are beginning to recognize the party and to appreciate that it really does have the makings of an alternative vision to.An alternative visionRalph Miliband had urged the Labour leadership of the mid-1980s that they lacked a connecting vision to bring coherence to the grab-bag of promises and improvements which they put forward at election time. Nowadays these are called ‘retail offers’ and they are tested out on focus groups and small scale polls, with little awareness that context and narrative are essential to coherence and effectiveness. Ralph urged that each measure should be conceived as part of a long term plan for a different society. To ask for such an approach today may seem like crying for the moon. Yet it was not long ago that an English film-maker, Danny Boyle, was commissioned to present a historical panorama to be performed on the opening night of the 2012 Olympic games. The resulting panorama of popular struggles for the vote, social justice, universal free health-care, access to education, technological progress and nuclear disarmament won widespread acclaim and showed that  it is still possible to imagine the peoples of the British Isles as protagonists of their own fate rather than as consumers of predigested tid-bits of political pabulum. Cameron’s need to appease the eurosceptics in his own party proved less constraining than the obsessive caution dictated by the Brownite and Blairite cabal known as the Shadow Cabinet. Cameron’s real Cabinet was stuffed with millionaires and old Etonians. A former Cameron aide, Steve Hilton, warned that hedge funds and spread betting concerns were buying privilege. He warned: ‘Democracy is in crisis. It seems to serve people no longer, but rather vested interests. Of all the bad that they do, perhaps their worst impact is the hold that they have on our governments. It seems today that political legitimacy stems not from votes but from money.’. The title of this appeal was ‘Citizen’s Arise!’ and it appeared in Murdoch’s Sunday Times on May 17. Obviously such rhetoric must be more or less totally discounted but it is sad that Labour was no longer able to strike such a chord. On the Conservative side a less excitable version of the Hilton message came from Ferdinand Mount’s , The New Few: or a Very British Oligarchy (2012). In this book Mount, a Conservative, praised Ed Miliband for raising the need to tackle runaway inequality. But Ed’s colleagues did not agree, as they made quite clear in their postelection recriminations. On the Labour side Owen Jones offered a valuable and informative critique in a best-selling book, The Establishment, but the ammunition he offered was largely ignored by Labour. The Scottish challenge and Charter 88I have so far only briefly mentioned what may well turn out to be the most lasting consequence of the 2015 election, namely the virtually clean sweep made by the Scottish National Party, with its radical social democratic offer. In the months leading up to the poll the SNP had not just recovered from their defeat in the Independence referendum, but had more than doubled its membership to 80,000. Labour’s immediate response to the revival and advance of the SNP was querulous and hostile. When Labour suffers from defeat at the hands of the Conservatives it is prone to an almost excessive self-criticism but the defeat in Scotland prompted little self-questioning. Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems had formed a common front against the SNP in the run-up to the referendum in 2014, offering more devolution on the eve of the poll, which they won by 55 to 45 per cent. Cameron’s immediate reaction to the defeat was to blurt out that any further devolution to the Scottish parliament would need to be balanced by allowing only English MPs to vote on ‘English questions’ in the British parliament. This sparked controversy but by the time of the 2015 election this had apparently subsided. The Unionist parties concentrated their fire on issues where they disagreed, with muted criticism of one another’s of Scottish policies. Or so it seemed.With only three or four days to go the Conservatives launched the political equivalent of a submarine attack on Labour and SNP . A barrage of messages on Facebook and Twitter warned that Labour would sign up to any SNP demand to get the keys to Downing Street. Miliband had explicitly rule out any ‘deal’ with the SNP in the BBC’s Question Time debate the previous week. The Conservative message was that a vote for Labour was a vote for chaos and capitulation. The sneak attack occurred so late that Labour had no time for a proper response. Another win for ‘Class War Conservativism’, showing how a governing party can tap into a deep well of fear and ressentiment. Labour did not have to be wrong-footed on Scotland. It is worth remembering that Labour and the SNP have not always been at war. There was a time, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when Labour, under the leadership of John Smith, made common cause with the SNP. While this never became a formal pact, an informal multi-party alliance in Scotland helped to isolate the Conservatives and to elaborate a wide-ranging programme of democratization. Labour, the Liberals and the SNP banded together to demand a Scottish Parliament and to confine the Conservatives to one Scottish constituency. This highly effective axis of opposition was much more than a deal struck by party chiefs. It was carried forward by a popular movement for democratization that targeted the bureaucratic and remote ‘ukanian’ regime at Westminster, with its arcane rituals and its arbitrary first-past-the-post rules. Civil society bodies, the churches, artistic groups and campaigns for social justice came together at the Scottish Constitutional Convention of 1989. The Conservatives were beaten in Scotland in 1992 and ideas advance that paved the way to the Conservatives’ massive UK-wide defeat in 1997. The Scottish movement had reflected and promoted a diverse debate on Scotland’s future from such writers as Tom Nairn, Neal Ascherson, Bob Purdy and Magnus Linklater. The Scottish movement also inspired a new spirit of democratic aspiration in England and Wales, with the Charter 88 manifesto being the most notable result. Charter 88 was an eclectic movement united by its commitment to the democratization the UK state. Though not party-political in character it challenged a Conservative regime that was visibly destroying all hope of social progress and respect for civil liberties. The Charter called for electoral reform, abolition of the House of Lords , a Human Rights Act, a Freedom of Information Act and a referendum on a Scottish parliament. The Charter was mainly the work of Anthony Barnett, a former editor of New Left Review The influence of Tom Nairn and Raymond Williams was easy to spot. Ralph Miliband endorsed the Charter, though with private reservations (should nuclear disarmament be added? What about social demands?). These leading lights of the New Left converged in their critique of the UK state as a monstrous obstacle to a flourishing British democracy. The archaism and deference embodied in the monarchy and House of Lords, the arcane customs of the Commons, the distortions of first-past-the-post, and the overcentralization of political life and the civil service, all figured in this critique. Nairn’s Break Up of Britain and Enchanted Glass, Williams’ recipe for reform in Resources of Hope, and Miliband’s Capitalist Democracy in Britain had quite different starting points but a common terminus on the terrain of the Charter. Edward Thompson’s Writing by Candle Light shared several of these themes, though he seems never to have signed the Charter. Tens of thousands did sign Charter 88, reflecting concern for the state of democracy in a country that had prided itself on its ‘mother of parliaments’. Magna Carta, the agitation of the Chartists, and Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia, were hailed as kindred movements. The Charter’s aims remain largely unattained – on May 10th a delegation of MPs from the SNP, Greens and UKIP presented a petition of over 400,000 signatories supporting proportional representation. In some areas, notably those linked to the web and all aspects of electronic communication the Charter’s policies need updating, but in the spirit of its original principles. When Tony Blair came to power he did so on a manifesto that gestured towards both electoral reform and the Scottish parliament. The Scots got their referendum on the parliament but the latter-day English Chartists were denied proportional representation. PR invariably appears pointless to the parties which are flattered and favoured by first-past-the-post. Scottish MPs - whether Labour, Lib Dem or SNP - had the numbers to ensure that the Scottish parliament came into being, and that it was elected by a proportional system. But Scottish Labour lacked the foresight – and democratic instinct - to abandon first-past-the-post for the Westminster parliament too.  They sowed the wind and are reaping the whirlwind. Today Scottish Labour has just one MP despite winning over a third of Scottish votes. The leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, is the First Minster of Scotland and not a member of the Westminster parliament. The decisive negotiations on further devolution will take place between the SNP and Conservative leaders though they will need to carry their respective parliaments. In the meantime the Scottish delegation at Westminister will be able, if it wishes, to test opinion on such topics as austerity and Trident. A suitable motion – say for a referendum on Trident renewal - could attract support from Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters, back-bench rebels, Plaid Cymru and the Green MP. Though they will not immediately prevail they could help revivify a wearisome public discourse, so long confined by the narrow limits of the ‘extreme centre’.  It was good to see 48 of the recently elected Labour MPs the taking first opportunity to defy the whips and vote against the Conservative withdrawal of tax credits for the low paid.The looming agendaThe government’s forthcoming in/out referendum on membership of the European Union will keep Conservatives and UKIP at loggerheads, with the Conservatives leading a victorious ‘Yes’ camp. The parties of what Tariq Ali called the ‘extreme centre’ – Conservatives, Labour and LibDems – will rally to support EU membership. But a more awkward outcome cannot be entirely ruled out: we have just been shown that UK voters are restive and unpredictable. The very fact that the established parties back EU membership could invite a backlash. The leaders of the EU and the Eurozone have covered themselves in ignominy in their handling of the Greek crisis. The ugly spectacle of the EU bullying the Greek government while enforcing counterproductive austerity – and ‘odious debts ‘- will have cost it much support.While the EU often intervenes in a reactionary manner to enforce a type of free market capitalism it declines to intervene in many ways that would be justified and necessary to address climate change, to attack inequality or to challenge corporate power. Voters of varying political allegiance will be repulsed the reactionary record of today’s EU –  the obsession with austerity, the imposition of fiscal despotism, the bullying of weaker members and so forth. Many supporters of  Jeremy Corbyn may be attracted to a critical stance towards the EU but will shun the official No campaign, because UKIP and the Conservative Euro-sceptics will inject xenophobic and racist elements into it. In the Scottish referendum the ‘Radical Independence’ grouping ran their own campaign and had considerable impact. The Greens, the trade unions and the supporters of Jeremy Corbyn could form a ‘Radical Independence’ group vis-a-vis the EU referendum, under the banner: ‘For Europe, Against the EU’. On the basis of its existing positions the Green Party is likely to campaign against continued EU membership in the referendum since it regards most existing EU institutions as ‘fundamentally flawed’. The Greens’ stance is quite different from UKIP’s: for example while UKIP vociferously supports the European ‘single market’, the Greens are highly critical.Cameron will probably win but find victory compromising and exhausting because it will confirm that he and his government are pillars of the EU after all. Eurosceptic MPs will be difficult to control. This gives him a good reason to put off the vote until the last possible moment, which is late 2017. In the meantime there are tricky issues of devolution and ‘English Votes for English Laws’ to address.Disarray in the UKIf Cameron has reasons to prevaricate over the EU referendum he has offered a further installment of devolution which is at once too modest for the SNP while being considerable enough to unsettle the UK’s arcane and famously unwritten constitution and to threaten to create two classes of MP at Westminster, with the Scottish members being excluded from votes on English legislation. The distinction here is a very difficult one to make since most laws have knock-on effects, for example because they have budgetary implications. Some urge the need for a Constitutional Convention to address the consequences of devolution for other parts of the UK. If the break up of Britain gathers momentum then there will be an opportunity for the various opposition parties to advance their own programmes of democratization and reformPolitically the UK opposition is highly fragmented. The support these fragments attracts exposes the narrowness of the recovery and the declining ability of the political elite to contain the estrangement this has generated. Northern Ireland has already been consigned to an anomalous backwater where the English parties don’t even run candidates. On the mainland Conservative hegemony must reckon with what Ralph Miliband termed ‘de-subordination’ and political alienation. In one way or another those who voted SNP, Green, Plaid Cymru and Sinn Fein were all voting against Cameron’s Great Britain. These parties are already natural allies. In their different ways Labour and UKIP voters also express popular disaffection, with both engaged in a struggle for survival. Labour moving further to the centre will not help to win back voters who have strayed to UKIP, but a radicalized Labour would have a hope of doing so. So far as Labour is concerned the Corbyn insurgency is a sign that the party may have some life left in it after all and is not just the Zombie bequeathed by New Labour. The Corbyn insurgencyEd Miliband’s most important legacy is likely to be the changes he secured to the rules governing Labour leadership elections. The special voting rights given to MPs and the trade unions were abolished in favour of ‘one member, one vote’. Moreover the party’s supporters were invited to register as such, paying a £3 fee and receiving the right to vote in the leadership election. The party says that 50,000 new members signed up to mid July 2015, bringing the party’s total to 250,000. The opening stages of the Labour leadership contest appeared very narrow with no leftwing contender (candidates needed the support of 35 MPs to qualify). Friendly commentators described all the initial contenders as ‘Blairite’. However at the last moment the veteran leftist Jeremy Corbyn announced that he had the necessary support to enter the contest. He had received the formal sponsorship of MPs who did not share his politics but believed that it would damage Labour to offer such a narrow choice. Ed Miliband’s former aide Simon Fletcher was one of those who helped to organise parliamentary support for Corbyn. The contest was swiftly transformed as Corbyn garnered the most constituency sponsorships (152) and scored well in straw polls of potential voters. Party members and supporters found Corbyn a breath of fresh air compared with the bland New Labour jargon of the other candidates. At hustings he spoke his mind and urged a rise in higher rate income tax, levies on wealth, the end of student tuition fees, nationalization of the railways and opposition to military intervention in the Middle East. He spoke on these topics without the politician’s usual evasiveness. Commentators explained the surge of support for Corbyn by observing that Labour – almost moribund in 2010 - had been radicalized and rejuvenated during the Miliband years. Ed Miliband should be given some credit for this but frustration at his excessive moderation was also a factor.

A good result for Corbyn will not, by itself, constitute the re-birth of a Labour Left but it would put this on the agenda. Of course the political landscape has changed and any new Labour left would need to acknowledge that fact. In different ways the Greens, the SNP, Plaid, and Sinn Fein have carved out their own territory and will not be going away.

If the ‘moderates’ manage to prevail Labour is likely to lose support to the Greens, who now look to be the English counterpart of the SNP. The Greens’ economic programme does not use the word ‘socialist’ but has a progressive and transitional character. They also avoid the word ‘capitalism’, which is a mistake since they thereby fail to identify  the systemic forces at work in the economy. Green parties elsewhere in Europe have a very mixed record, with the ‘realos’ serving as stooges of the extreme centre. The English Greens have these discouraging examples to learn from. They also have a good opportunity to join forces with the trade-union left, and the new Labour Left, on Europe, Trident and austerity. Under a new leader the Liberal Democrats could also be drawn to support some progressive measures.

There will be several key tests for any new Labour left. It will have to show that it can rally strong opposition to austerity and cuts to welfare, education and health. The centrist candidates, under pressure from Corbyn, have come up with one or two good ideas which should be considered on their merits. Andy Burnham has proposed that care for the elderly should be reorganized as part of the NHS, with everybody contributing and everyone benefitting. Of course ambitious ideas like this would need funding. Here the SNP has made a vital contribution with its proposal to end the Trident nuclear submarine programme, releasing £90 billion of future funds. Another funding source could be Ed Miliband’s pre-election promise to take away the privileged exemption from stamp duty enjoyed by hedge funds and spread-betting outfits. Tory support for this privilege is muted because these unpopular financial concerns are major donors to the Conservative party. A radicalized Labour opposition would be able to reach out to a broader common front against austerity, against the UK state’s democratic deficit at home, and against military action abroad.

A new Labour Left should be prepared to seek alliances with the Greens and SNP rather than treat them as rivals or enemies. They should also be prepared for a wider, democratic overhaul of the United Kingdom and support the idea of a Constitutional Convention to address electoral reform and further measures of devolution. Jeremy Corbyn has a long history of campaigning for a diversity of progressive causes and is one of the least ‘tribal’ of Labour politicians. Whether as outright winner, or as a strong challenger, a good result for Corbyn could signal a new era in which Labour re-learns how to fly.

David Cameron is in a tight corner with a 12 seat majority and 37 per cent of the vote. The Tory leader’s alternate left and right jabs often catch his English opponents off-balance. Cameron’s real long term project remains an enigma. If the going gets rough how will he respond? The first weeks of his new government saw it defeated on the symbolic issue of fox-hunting while the summer budget which seemed like a continuation of the election by other means announce a raft of reactionary measures, promising stringent new curbs on the right to strike, the repeal of the Human Rights Act, and new ‘anti-terrorist’ laws targeting ‘non-violent extremism’. The new Culture Secretary, an opponent of the BBC’s license fee, has obliged the Corporation to bear the cost of licences for the over-75s, tantamount to a cut of over £600 million in its annual funding. The UK’s EU partners are to be required to turn their face against desperate refugees and migrants, while at home many billions of further cuts in social programmes will be found. The leader of a minority party threatens to outdo Thatcher in a great leap backwards. Already in 1981 Ralph Miliband believed that diverse expressions of ‘de-subordination’ within a failing UK, was provoking an authoritarian backlash. He was right in the eighties and the danger is now greater.

Based on a lecture given to the Miliband Programme at the London School of Economics, 20 May 2015. Robin Blackburn teaches at the University of Essex and is the author of Age Shock: How Finance is Failing Us, Verso.

Liked this piece? Please support us with £3 a month so we can keep producing independent journalism.

Who is bankrolling Britain's democracy? Which groups shape the stories we see in the press; which voices are silenced, and why? Sign up here to find out.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData