If Ed Miliband is the answer – then what is the question?

A pivot to the centre is the wrong medicine for Labour. More radical answers are available.

Paul Walsh
31 May 2019, 10.43am
Former Labour leader Ed Miliband MP speaking in the House of Commons, January 2019
House of Commons/PA Images

Owen Jones, writing in the Guardian yesterday, pleads for the return of Ed Miliband and a “drastic reboot” of the Labour party. He claims that Brexit has tarnished the “optimistic, idealistic gloss” of Corbynism, dampened the enthusiasm of its supporters, and robbed the project of its identity. He might be right, as Corbyn has certainly taken a kicking from all sides of the political spectrum. Yet if Ed Miliband is the answer – then what is the question?

The question to ask is surely this: do we step back into the past, or jump forward into the future? Because to bring back Ed Miliband would be an unmitigated disaster; a slap in the face to the millions that put their hope in Corbyn in 2017; and a defeat for the most radical left-leaning electoral machine in a generation. It would signal a return to brand over values; to polish over policy; and would restore a politics to accommodate neoliberalism rather than one to supersede it. Likewise, the Murdoch press would eat the story with relish: Miliband's back The Man Who Couldn't Eat a Bacon Sandwich. The response to such a turn would be a savaging at the ballot box. And rightly so.

Still, Owen's diagnosis is correct, as Labour has been tarnished by the Brexit brush. Tarred by the early triggering of Article 50, tangled in a policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’, and tainted by recent non-negotiations with the Tories, voters in the EU elections deserted Labour en masse. Of course, this may just be a protest vote in an election with little impact on the politics of tomorrow. But Labour would be foolish to ignore what this teaches us today, even if last night’s astonishing YouGov poll putting the Lib Dems top and Labour and the Tories tied in third place, turns out to be an outlier or temporary bounce.

Owen’s solution to these problems is, however, wrong. Centre-right and centre-left parties were pummelled in the EU elections; the far right won victories in Poland, Hungary, and Italy; and a narrow win for Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National (RN) gave Emmanuel Macron’s premiership a bloody nose. So the centre ground is clearly vanishing. But what explains this? Jan-Werner Müller, writing in the LRB, says the liberal centre suffers from a “post-Cold War illusion that only democracies can learn from their own mistakes”. He mordantly reminds us ‘that today’s anti-democrats have learned from history too’. Just as they did in the 30s, the far right is learning to subvert democracy for its own ends.

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Such complacency means that liberals fail to respond to the unfolding crisis. They flail because their hallowed centre ground is now the crucible of an authoritarian-populist revolt, a revolt that is meaningful because of its clear, straightforward messaging. For French author Christophe Guilluy these messages speak to a demos subdivided into ‘progressives’ and ‘populists’; messages that speak to people in peripheral towns naked of investment; those left precarious, poor and humiliated by a generation of neoliberal policies that have destroyed well-paid jobs, just as they have annihilated any sense of political agency, and any sense of pride.

But returning to Owen’s plea, who actually likes rebooting their computer? It's a strategy borne of nothing left to lose; the final, last ditch response to a bug, a glitch, to some deficient software lying deep in the unseen circuits of a machine we no longer care to understand.

So instead of a reboot, perhaps Labour should seek to emulate the one party sailing past the sirens of populism: the Greens.
As Chantal Sullivan-Thomsett notes in her PhD fieldwork in Germany, the German Greens “cemented their status” by taking bold positions on issues other than the environment. “They are emphatically pro-Europe, and anti-racism and the far right”, she writes, and new leaders have staunched the infighting between reformist and radical wings. It’s obvious that only an anti-fascist, pro-social, green agenda can deliver electoral success, the same platform that delivered Magid Magid's recent EU election win; a trenchant, defiant, set of three red lines. Remain, reform, and resist the authoritarian right.

The cure for disappointment is not more disappointment but a clear-eyed analysis of the situation to hand. And it’s clear from this analysis that we need not a reboot but a regeneration of the Corbyn project and a deepening of its aims. Not a quick fix but a transformation; not to resign in the face of difficulties but to regroup in readiness for the biggest battle many of us have ever known. Because you can pivot to the centre all you like, but there’s no magic button to defeat fascism, and there’s no use pretending there is.

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