The long history of Labour's missing oomph

What on earth has happened to the left in the referendum debate? Chapter nine of Blimey, it could be Brexit!

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
26 May 2016


At the start of the final month of the referendum campaign, the London newspapers are complaining about how negative, personalised and miserable the arguments have become. You would never have thought that the media bore any responsibility for the dreadful coverage, as well as the shocking failure of parliament to debate the government’s EU deal, which the referendum is based on; just as I predicted, the prime minister is not going to debate it at all. At least not in a confrontation alongside anyone who knows what they are talking about, as the Daily Mail points out in a splendid rebuke.

I’m not ‘blaming’ the media. Rather there is a single political-media caste in the UK with a shared responsibility for the political culture and its manipulation. I found it grimly amusing to be agreeing with someone I regard as a consummate member of the caste, one time editor of the Spectator and the Telegraph, Charles Moore, in his elegant complaint about the “deeper sense in which things are fixed”. He set out a convincing description of how the BBC collaborates with the government in shaping the agenda, playing down the important:

“Then there is the little matter of how we are governed and by whom, under what law and which judges. This is sometimes well done in feature programmes – Jeremy Paxman had quite a good go on Thursday night, for example. But it is scarcely considered news at all, though polls show it is one of the three biggest issues with voters.

Her Majesty’s official opposition also has a role in this. Had it wanted to insist on a Commons debate, it could have had one. Had it put forward with clarity and conviction the Labour party’s own consideration of democracy and the European Union, this would have been heard. When Nicola Sturgeon speaks up she gets prominent coverage in the London press as well as Scotland’s. Labour’s leader doesn’t because he has nothing distinctive to say. An astonishing example is Jeremy Corbyn’s Ralph Miliband lecture at the LSE last week, on 17th May, on Rebuilding the Politics of Hope. He talks about the need to rebuild trust, quotes Harold Wilson saying the Labour party is “a moral crusade or it is nothing” and… does not mention the referendum over the future of Britain, even in passing. Is hope so evanescent it needs no country or continent?

 Is hope so evanescent it needs no country or continent?

With Tory voters apparently divided evenly, the way voters who are Labour sympathisers turn out could be decisive for the future of Europe. Disengagement could be fatal for the cause of Remain that Labour ostensibly supports. Worse, in a way, at least for the wider Labour and left movement, is the more likely outcome of a Remain vote owned by the right. If such a defining issue is handed over to the Conservatives by abstention it is likely to have dire consequences for the left thereafter, summed up by a single word: irrelevance.

Some of us intend to fight this, organised around Another Europe is Possible. This holds its London launch meeting this Saturday and brings together the Greens with Caroline Lucas, the pro-Corbyn Momentum movement, and the Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, and the DiEM movement headed by Yanis Varoufakis. Campaigning for a Remain vote is one thing – understanding the deeper impasse of the left is another; that is the central aim of this experiment of writing a book week-by-week online.

A left that is irritated and uncomfortable with debating its democracy, constitution, sovereignty and the principles governing our relationship to the EU, has walked away from its own country 

My intention from the start of Blimey, it could be Brexit! has been to resist the de-facto monopolising of the European question by the right. As soon as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson declared for Leave, Brexit became a viable option. No longer was the split between UKIP plus mavericks on the one hand against the government and a unified political caste. This meant it could be Brexit. It also meant that if it isn’t, as everyone expects, the outcome will belong to a narrower section of the Conservative party. But meanwhile, conservatism as a whole thanks to its energy and will to contest the outcome, will have occupied the terrain that defines Britain’s place and role in the world, marginalising UKIP.

Meanwhile the left won’t even be barking at the caravan, it will just be scavenging for bones. For it was already clear that, despite many months of warning that a referendum was coming, no preparation of a left agenda or even vision rooted in an analysis of the forces at work had been started within the Labour party or outside. Such a failure can’t be reversed by adopting ‘a position’ – it demands repairing the left’s political culture. A left that is irritated and uncomfortable with debating its democracy, constitution, sovereignty and the principles governing our relationship to the EU, has walked away from its own country. Now it has to walk back. And, of course, it will be a different country from the one it has been used to. I’m not saying that fighting austerity is not a priority. I’m saying the way the left now uses urgent social and economic questions to freeze out wider issues such as the nature of the state is not prioritisation – it is repression: a pathological weakness, not a grasp of strategic importance.

"What the fuck is wrong with the left?" That is what I am asking in a sentence. I regret the vulgarity but we live in coarsened times. Why can’t the English left wake up to the significance of ‘Europe’, to the issues of how we are governed, and to their urgency now they are being taken into everyone’s homes by the referendum? I’ve been asked why I am writing a whole book about ‘the Tory referendum’, as if it is a piece of soiled washing the fastidious would deal with only as a matter of hygiene. My reply is that the above question is at the centre of my enquiry. To quote from the introduction published way back on 22 March, I posed a question:

“… especially pertinent but not confined to those of us on the left as we observe the Conservative government battle it out and puzzle and fear the consequences. There is a story about a warm summer night when Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson decided to sleep rough on the Moors rather than head for the local inn still some miles away. In the middle of the night Holmes shook Dr Watson by the shoulder and woke him. “Look up there, Watson”, he said, pointing to the stars, “what do you make of the significance of that?” “I’m not sure”, said the sleepy Watson, “it shows the night sky of the northern hemisphere”. “No, no, my dear Watson, what else?” “Well, Holmes, it is a dark, clear moonless summer night and Orion is in the ascendant.” “No, no, something more important than that, Watson.” “Oh I don’t know, Holmes”, Dr. Watson replied now wide awake, “what does it show?” Nothing stirred across the bleak, windless moors. After a short silence Sherlock Holmes replied, “It means, my dear Watson, that someone has stolen our tent”. 


What does it mean that we can see the strange movement of the planets of the UK’s Conservative party so clearly? It means that something has stolen away the British left. The Conservatives have no need to hide their differences as they sense no serious threat to their heavenly supremacy. Just as the absence of a thrusting, profitable European Union has made Leave a credible option, so the absence of a viable, threatening, popular Labour Party, confident of winning the next election, means the Tories feel no need to stick together to preserve their current advantage. More significant, the Labour Party has almost nothing to say of any vitality or interest about the future of Europe and why the UK should, or should not, be involved. I’m not blaming Labour’s new leader Jeremy Corbyn as if it’s his fault. None of the many who are ambitious for his job have uttered any credible arguments worthy of the stakes in play.

To understand how profoundly shaping an absence this is, try three quick thought experiments. The Labour party could be insisting on what was once its almost unanimous view: that the EU is a corporate, foreign threat to the great traditions of British government and we should not be in it. In which case any Tories calling for Leave would be playing Labour’s game, because Labour’s narrative of the country’s role outside the EU would be stronger and more coherent than theirs. Given the partisan culture of Westminster politics this would rally most Conservative opinion and its media to Remain. Or imagine a strong and coherent Labour party embracing the Blairite view, which only recently was its near unanimous opinion: that Britain must lead in Europe. Cameron’s deal, it would argue, is a disgrace, an abnegation of the need for us to influence the future of the continent, and as soon as Labour returns to power it will tear up its ‘opt outs’ and take the UK back to the centre of the EU as New Labour did when it pledged before the 1997 election to sign the Social Chapter of Maastricht that John Major’s government refused.

The consequence of such a pro-European stand would force many of those who support Cameron to switch to Leave, because the strong and defining Remain narrative would have been defined by New Labour as fully participating in the European Union. Or, finally, imagine a young Labour leadership organising platforms with like-minded Greens and left parties from across the whole continent alongside the SNP, calling for a transformed, democratic EU – a left Remain strategy with just as strong a narrative as the Blairite one but pitching a democratic rather than a corporate story. This too would have swung Tories into the Leave camp in the face of a genuine threat of popular transformation.

The fact that there wasn’t a remote possibility of any of these scenarios brings you face to face with the collapse of Labour and the left as an influential or even challenging force in British politics. It remains extremely relevant: negatively. Yes, the Brexit debate is an ugly spat within the forces of conservatism and the right, and to that extent demeaning for the country as a whole. But the country has been delivered into their exclusive hands by the failure of anyone to capture the public imagination with an alternative, democratic vision of Britain in Europe.

Why is this, what has stolen away the tent? Such a failure must have causes. In the first part of Blimey I looked at why the UK is having an uncharacteristic referendum in the first place. This meant starting with how the Conservatives have been broken apart over Europe, from the UK’s original accession in the early 1970s and through the Thatcher period. I then examined Cameron’s strategy and his duplicitous deal. The peculiarity of the Tory Brexiteer opposition to it followed. It’s important to pause on this for a moment as the left’s scorn of ‘Boris’ is dangerously facile. 

While the Conservatives seem supreme thanks to their small but absolute parliamentary majority, they are the party most threatened by the upstarts of the anti-establishment insurgency, in the shape of UKIP. The Brexit Tories led by Johnson and Gove are seeking to appropriate the force of populism from unwashed Kippers while further marginalising the left. Uniquely, as members of the 1 per cent, they have ventured out to meet the anti-elite on its own terms and seek to lead it, thus renewing themselves. They will probably lose the referendum to shaken corporate colleagues, having given them the fright of their lives. This does not mean they won’t have a future. Their furious struggle over staying in the EU or not demonstrates that there is life – self-belief and self-confidence – in the Tory network, along with access to funding. The referendum could leave them battered but alive, like prize-fighters, while leaving Labour seeming grumpy and irrelevant, outside the ring.

How come Labour finds itself so marginalised? There are four major reasons. First, the social democrat tradition, which seeks to reform and better capitalism for the benefit of all who work, has collapsed as a political movement across Europe since the financial crash of 2008. Its decline was already underway with the shrinking of the organised working class. Its revival through its embrace of ‘third way’ policies supporting globalization implicated it in neoliberalism. It became a victim of the financial forces it had embraced. Here in the UK, Gordon Brown celebrated his deregulation of the financial sector and announced that his policies as Chancellor had ended “Tory boom and bust”. When the bust came, despite a valiant rear-guard action, his and Blair’s New Labour went down with it. Parts of it are still going down. 

Second, membership of the European Union poses profound issues of sovereignty, government and democracy; of who is accountable to whom, what role voters play, and what kind of state the UK will have in future. For the United Kingdom this is especially challenging, as it is an uncodified, multi-national union within the larger European multi-national union that is codifying itself. This is bound to be a dissolving threat to Britain’s once strong but informal constitution, as the Tories have discovered. For the UK’s lack of an articulated constitutional framework means it can’t easily defend its particularity from the constitutional logic of Europe. The UK’s supposed strength is its highly centralised government institutionalised in Westminster, whose powers are reinforced by first-past-the-post, the House of Lords, the Treasury and the domination of the Whitehall over the regions. One of the most interesting and pursuasive arguments of the Leave is that the EU is "obsolete" as an economic project, centralised and corporate in an era that now favours the flexible, advocated particularly clearly by Daniel Hannan. But as Simon Deakin argues in a Social Europe collection, it is the British constitution that is obsolete not the EU's. 

Any critique of the absence of democracy in the EU can’t avoid the pre-democratic character of Westminster. Otherwise it will be hypocritical and contradictory. This didn't matter for New Labour, which embraced the authoritarianism of the British state as well as that of the EU, as two sides of the same coin when Blair strutted in his prime. But opposing the undemocratic nature of the EU has to be matched by a call for democratic reform of Britain or it will be worthless. Yet Labour is stuffed with MPs, peers and ex-prime ministers besotted with the lure of a Labour majority government retaking the reins of Westminster’s centralisation. Labour’s new and inexperienced leadership has not yet been able to develop its ideas on the UK’s constitution – little wonder it has not done so on Europe’s.

Third, the party’s paralysis on democratic and constitutional questions is multiplied by the national question, where the different energy of the EU hits the UK particularly hard. Until only last year Labour was a party of the union; since then it has been reduced to one Scottish MP. Earlier this month it was reduced to being the third party north of the border.

Like UKIP, Labour is now a party of England and Wales. But while UKIP, whose electoral pressure forced the Tories to grant a referendum and whose electoral gains stopped Labour from being the largest party in 2015, is comfortable with its English nature, Labour is not. UKIP is the thwarted voice of a captive country, but Labour still sees itself as a British beast. Advocate leaving the neoliberal monster of the EU (as many Labour activists do) and you are expressing an English politics, even though most of them abhor any form of nationalism. Advocate Remain with energy and passion and you begin to sound like a distinctly ‘un-British’ European. This is before considering how Labour supporters in Wales and Scotland and social democrats in Northern Ireland feel. Labour especially has to sort out what it thinks about the UK’s national question before it can advocate any consistent European role. The European question and the national question walk out together. Apart from Scotland, however, the national issue is a neuralgic one for most of the left. Little wonder that most Labour members stick with a passive distaste of Tory antics.

Fourth, there is the connection of all these issues to the anger against the political establishment and the blatant inequality of austerity in our maddening times. The forces at work are disintegrating and dislodging traditional governing parties and boosting those like UKIP and the SNP and the Greens, as we have seen. The Labour party accidently opened itself up to the transformative energy of this impatience with a new system for electing its leader, leaving most of its MPs and peers along with the Tory press horrified by the Corbyn surge. Can the new leadership assist the creation of a new form of politics in a democratic Labour party? The referendum on Brexit offers a chance to initiate this but it came too soon, to be taken by men and women who had hardly learnt how to work with each other and are still reeling under the impact of the party’s electoral crisis. So I’m not ‘blaming’ the Labour party for failing to be a shaping force at this moment when British politics has opened up in new ways. I’m trying to understand its marginalisation at a moment of opportunity.

Some Labour activists suggest that Labour’s passivity hides a vixen-like cunning on the part of different sections of the leadership. Among them are those who would like the UK to leave but want the Tories to take responsibility, hence preserving Labour unity by supporting Remain as weakly as possible. Others reckon the best thing is to step back and allow the Conservatives to chew each other to pieces over Europe, so that Labour can inherit at the next election whatever the outcome, as if there is a legitimate system waiting for them to 'take over the reins'. But when you talk with Labour party members there is little sign of the glint of winners taking tactical advantage of their enemy’s affliction. Rather there is a weary lack of interest in the referendum, even revulsion. The wider issues it poses are ones they do not want to have to think about, suggesting a pathological desire to repress reality. Jeremy Gilbert has pointed out in a careful, patient analysis that “if there is to be any hope of a progressive government in 2020, Labour and its supporters must go much further in accepting that the only sane course is to do something very different from what we have done before.” Being sane, and even more so staying sane, is very hard work. Much easier to hope that one more heave, this time with a million members, will do the trick and absolve them from the need for a rethink.

Three weeks ago I explored the all-round madness of the moment, of which the referendum is a symptom. Next week I’m going to look at nationalism and especially the Anglo-British left’s functionally reactionary and self-denying hang-up with nationalism, which impedes it from escaping the imperial imagination. It is one of Labour’s biggest problems. Then I’ll look at democracy and the prospects for pluralism in the context of the UK’s broken constitution and eviscerated constitutional culture. The double, disabling inability of the English left to develop national and democratic policies feeds its resentful silence, unease and even bad-faith in the Brexit referendum campaign. All this will have to be overcome if there is to be any recovery that lasts.

 In addition, there is the crisis of a social democratic tradition within which Labour’s fate has to be situated.

The collapse of European solidarity

A warm summer evening in Syntagma Square, just last year. Crowds of happy young people are pouring out of the subway station where only recently protestors had been gassed and clubbed. Greece has voted OXI. The polls said it would be narrow. Instead, with referendum papers still being counted by the extraordinarily efficient telling system, the result is clear:  cities and villages, isthmuses and islands, everywhere across the country by a majority of three to two Greeks have said NO to the Troika and its punitive, self-defeating demands. It’s friendly and exhilarating. A bit like a crowd celebrating a football victory, yet it is also the beginning of a confrontation. The singing just close by, my friends tell me, is a wartime anti-German partisan chorus. I realise that for the first time in my life I’m part of a crowd celebrating the equivalent of going to war. It’s not belligerent or regimented or angry, and the mood isn’t at all arrogant. It is happily defiant; proud that they have stood up. I think everyone is prepared for the likelihood of paying a price, perhaps a heavy one, even being defeated, but they are relieved to have a clear majority in their sails: OXI! No, to being crushed by a European Union! It is better to fight whatever the odds than choose to be a slave. I was happy to be there.

Suddenly a feeling passed through me, like a shudder. We here are alone. A modest square, in a small country, on a lovely peninsula, fighting for a little justice for regular folk. The country is broke – everyone knows this. Recovery must be hard, but Greeks are hard-working. They knew they bore some responsibility. Even if Germans and French corrupted the elites with bribes, the Greeks took them and gave their MPs immunity from prosecution. But the terms being proposed by the Eurozone and the so-called Troika were not just punitive, they were ridiculous. To pay back the loan being negotiated the country has to grow its economy. The Eurogroup’s terms included a budget surplus of 3.5 per cent, which would make the necessary growth impossible. The country has suffered an unprecedented drop in its economic activity and standard of living, with enormously high unemployment. The terms demanded are both inhuman and counter-productive. It is clearly right to defy them. But where is the solidarity that should have been extended from Europe’s trade union and social democrat parties to their Greek brothers and sisters in such distress?

They were on the other side. The Euro Group and its central bank shut down the Greek banking system when the referendum was declared – a form of intimidation far more extreme than the alarms the UK has been subjected to with the prospect of Brexit. The man who led this was the Euro Group’s president Jeroen Dijsselbloem, a leading Dutch Labour politician. He attacked the Greeks saying that their “every sentence had ideological baggage”, as if his were free of any preconceptions! A perfect example of using depoliticisation to disarm disagreement. President Hollande was – and still is – the head of the French social democrats. All he was capable of by means of fraternité was equivocation and hand-wringing. Perhaps no one personified the consequences of sharing power for European social democrats more than Chancellor Merkel’s deputy in her grand coalition, Sigmar Gabriel, who heads Germany’s historic Social Democratic party. When the referendum’s resounding NO was declared he made the most brutal public statement, saying that Tsipras and his government were leading the Greek people down a path of “bitter sacrifice and hopelessness”, and had:

“torn down the last bridges over which Europe and Greece might have been able to move towards a compromise… With the rejection of the rules of the game of the eurozone, which have been expressed with the majority of NOs, it is impossible to imagine negotiations over programmes worth billions…”

One year on from this disgusting assault and what do we read? The same Gabriel announces, "Everyone knows that this debt relief will have to come at some point. It makes no sense to shirk from that time and time again… Greece needs debt relief”. Exactly what the Tsipras government had been saying and ‘Oxi’ demanded. Too late, perhaps, for Gabriel’s once mighty party, which has just slid to below 20% support for the first time. Meanwhile, the IMF now argues “upfront, unconditional” debt relief is needed with a much lower primary surplus of 1.5%. Cruellest of all, Paul De Grauwe has shown in a careful expert policy analysis that the ECB’s quantitative easing is providing effective debt relief to every Eurozone country, most of all Germany, except for…  Greece.

“The exclusion of Greece is the result of a political decision that aims at punishing a country that has misbehaved. It is time that the discrimination against Greece stops and that a country struggling under the burden of immense debt is treated in the same way as the other Eurozone countries that have been enjoying silent debt relief organised by the ECB.

This won’t stop until there are strong voices across Europe demanding a reversal of policy towards Greece. Through this whole period the British Labour party has done nothing. No hand or eyebrow of even symbolic, moral support has been extended. Technically, the reason for this is that Greece’s left wing government is headed by Syriza while Labour is affiliated to the Progressive Alliance, whose Greek member is PASOK, which now has only 6% support. Of course this is an excuse. Greece is challenging the consensus, and too many Labour figures have benefitted from it to extend a hand of solidarity.

What does this have to do with UK Labour’s inability to generate an influential approach to the Brexit referendum? A lot. It needs a way of supporting Europe on terms that are not beholden to the Tories. This demands European allies and attractive forms of European solidarity. Labour needs a plausible framework of international cooperation to make any case at all that the sway of neo-liberal Europe can be challenged.

But just as Labour under Blair drove forward the Lisbon Treaty that expanded the EU’s undemocratic powers, Europe’s social democrats are co-architects of the continent's neo-liberalism. In order to be able to speak with conviction of a social Europe of solidarity, liberty and equality, the current influence of its social democratic parties has to be replaced. This is an immense task, whether it means replacing them as in the battle within the left currently underway in Spain, or renewing them as is being attempted however clumsily in the UK.

At home on the range

As a life-long non-member of any party my first experience of a Labour conference was in 1989, as the co-ordinator of Charter 88. That year I went to all three of the main parties’ annual gatherings to advocate constitutional reform. While the Lib Dems were overwhelmingly boys exercising their hobby, Labour surprised me by being diverse and energetic. This was the period of Neil Kinnock’s leadership as Thatcher passed her zenith. I had expected a traditional, old-left Bennite domination of the conference floor. Instead, Bennism and its “four noes” (No to the bomb, the EU, NATO and the House of Lords) had been defeated and the EU embraced. As the Charter’s first priority was to see the European Convention on Human Rights incorporated into British law the larger Europeanization of Labour’s political culture was hugely welcome.

A year later, Claire Short stopped the party’s executive from adopting a motion supporting human rights on the grounds that they were anti-woman as they gave judges power. But it was the start of a learning curve. Jacques Delors had spoken to the TUC conference in 1988 proposing Europe as a social market and a way out of the trap of Thatcherism, strongly supported by John Monks, then head of the TUC. The conversion of Labour to a European party was all the more impressive for being informal as well. Discussion of policy issues, from the family to work to economic policy, was built on European models and legislation. The horizons of its political culture had lifted from Benn’s parliamentary nationalism to continental reformism. After 1992 when John Smith, a committed European, became leader of Labour, he committed the party to a Human Rights Act (in his Charter 88 lecture, indeed), firmed up its commitment to a Scottish Parliament and called for a new settlement. In policy terms, democratic reform and the national-European question often seem separate issues, but they are part of the same cultural movement against the Westminster system.

A ‘soft left’ emerged, strengthened by new think tanks that combined social reform to globalisation and formed the mental environment in which the generation of both Miliband brothers entered politics. It embraced Maastricht (while far-sighted warnings against the Euro, from Wynne Godley and Brian Gould, who had run against John Smith for the leadership, were ignored). When Blair came to power after 1997, he rapidly signed the UK up to Maastricht’s Social Chapter providing a framework for hugely improved rights at work while announcing the arrival of the ‘third way’.

Often mocked, as in Francis Wheen’s delightful tagging as being between the Second Coming and the Fourth Dimension, there were (naturally) three aspects to third-wayism. One was the development of innovative, international policies that were progressive, effective and motivated, not simply collectivist or delivered from above. This fitted the European-style internationalism that became Labour’s core culture. Another was the embrace of international capitalism under the rubric of globalisation, as a replacement of old-style internationalism, with the taxation of its profits used to fund improved education, welfare and social needs; backing finance capital and living off the transfers. Finally, there was the politics of the label. The most important word was neither ‘third’ nor ‘way’. Their combination was banal, meaning only a political economy between total free market and total state control. The key word in the formulation, which delivered its bite, was the word ‘The’. There could be only one third way! Arbitrated, naturally, by the leader. In this guise, ‘The Third Way’ was an old-fashioned form of control camouflaged by new-fangled sociologists, and opened the way for ‘triangulation’ and the development of corporate populism. 

‘The Third Way’ was an old-fashioned form of control camouflaged by new-fangled sociologists

The Blair-Brown period of Labour government saw a leadership that was always Washington-centric becoming more so. While their embrace of the US was existential, their support for the EU was primarily instrumental. They saw it as a platform for the projection of ‘leadership’ and ‘influence’ elsewhere in the world, especially as an ally of the US. This distance from the EU was intensified by Gordon Brown, supported by Ed Balls and his Treasury team, making the far-sighted call to resist Blair and Mandelson’s campaign for the UK to join the euro. They ensured the UK and the new currency avoided a complete catastrophe when the financial crash occurred in 2008. The paradox is that New Labour began as a ‘project’ with an unprecedented sense of a coherent approach: an alert, vigorous culture, and an embrace of a shared continent that broke from Labour’s imperial nostalgia. Its will to power was combined with a genuine dedication to equality, innovation and at the start, even openness. But it ended its period in office in 2010 deeply unresolved as to its priorities and place in the world, suspicious of new ideas, divided between its two architects. It finally broke the old British settlement with its conservative establishment but failed to replace it with a legitimate democracy or a functioning welfare state. In the process it started to make the UK a more European country then pulled back. The Europeanising constitutional reforms only fully proceeded in Scotland, whose present confident pro-European mood demonstrates the connection between the civic, the national and the democratic that has been the best legacy of the EU to date. Its achievement will be seen as one of the most important, lasting legacies of New Labour, leading ironically to the party’s elimination north of the border

Ed Miliband’s legacy

It would be quite unfair to suggest that there could be any single Labour figure responsible after 2010 for this year’s benighted Brexit referendum and Labour’s incapacity to shape it. Putting fairness aside there is: it is Ed Miliband. His leadership blocked Labour from proposing its own referendum and this paved the way for the current collapse. The nature of his five-year leadership is coming into focus, helped by The Labour Party Under Ed Miliband by Eunice Goes. Miliband was underestimated when he won the leadership and almost certainly did better than his brother would have, as David would have divided the party without the patience or skill to bring it back together or the moral standing needed to rectify his support for the Iraq war given his inability to break from Blair.


Ed Miliband – photo, the Labour party

While that is speculation, what is clear is that retaining the unity of the party after defeat became Ed Miliband’s number one preoccupation. It was like a Ming vase, he would say, having to be carried across the five years. With amazing dedication he included, called, touched, assuaged, neutralised and listened to all the potential points of serious friction, accommodating them in his shadow cabinet and beyond. A party that had been riven by a ferocious division at the top became a singular machine, with only the odd media contrived rumours of leadership challenges, mostly concocted from disgruntled figures outside the parliamentary party itself. In 2012 Miliband rebranded Labour as the “One Nation” party at its conference in Manchester, getting rare approval from the media.

“Friends, I didn’t become leader of the Labour Party to reinvent the world of Disraeli or Attlee. But I do believe in that spirit. That spirit of One Nation. One Nation: a country where everyone has a stake. One Nation: a country where prosperity is fairly shared. One Nation: where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together. That is my vision of One Nation. That is my vision of Britain. That is the Britain we must become.

He then reached out to those who had voted for David Cameron. The press liked it. It seemed to be sincere. But even this caused some friction and was dropped. In its place Miliband talked about togetherness. In his speech to the 2014 party conference two years later One Nation had evaporated completely and he referred 41 times to what Goes generously calls “the principle” of "together”.

To ensure togetherness within the party, fear of the 1980s was also pumped into the faithful and the discontented alike, warning them that any return to tearing into each other as after 1979 would mean decades in the wilderness. The incentive was the analysis that showed “a 35% strategy” of retaining just over a third of voters would return Labour to office after one parliament. It was one of the most masterful exercises of party management ever witnessed. The outcome was indeed unity – the quiet unity of a morgue.

Only one aspect of this concerns us here. Miliband presented himself as a man who wanted empowered democracy and political reform. Under the influence of Marc Stears, ideas about direct democracy and people power “peppered” some speeches and policies. In fact, Goes reports, he was “ambivalent” about democratic reform, giving few speeches devoted to it, and his comments tended to be “fairly general”. She concludes: “On the whole, then, Miliband’s ‘power to the people’ agenda was more symbolic than transformative”.

Some of his advisors sought to change this, in particular pressing for him to promise an EU referendum on the principle of membership or not. On the right, Ed Balls, Miliband’s shadow chancellor, although an opponent of devolution of power, thought a referendum inevitable and that Labour should own it. Others in the shadow cabinet argued strongly in favour. Thanks to this I was encouraged to set out the argument in a private letter to him, which I did in the Autumn of 2014 and later published a version of it in the New Statesman while there was still time for its inclusion in the party’s election manifesto.

I proposed a ‘European and Constitutional Reform Act’ to set out that if the people vote to stay in the EU, the UK would move to creating its own constitution through a convention process. The link was essential, I argued, so that being in the EU is associated with asserting and obtaining our own constitution, “with a constitutional court able to defend it in the way that the German court protects German democracy”:

“A more popular way of putting this, is that we must ensure that staying in Europe makes us more democratic, not less. Farage’s most notable phrase is that we must "take our country back". In his case, back to an unrealisable better yesterday. But he taps into a genuinely felt loss of who we are. The answer: we have to find ourselves in the future, not in the past. Put the two together - membership of Europe and a democratic constitution - and a referendum becomes a positive, winnable call for change not a defensive manoeuvre. Fail to do this and UKIP supporters, including one-time Labour ones, will reluctantly vote Tory in the vain hope this will give them a say.

Miliband refused to budge. It was divisive and not together enough: Labour would oppose the Tory proposal to hold a referendum. The result was that enough Labour voters switched to UKIP to lose the seats Labour needed to govern.

Being committed to the possibility of a new constitution meant opening the prospect of a federal outcome, hence maybe an English parliament. But this was precisely the point, there had to be a positive approach to the national question as well, otherwise the rise of the Scottish nationalist would prove Labour’s undoing. The forces that defeated Labour in 2015 were perfectly obvious, including to Ed’s frustrated advisors. 

By refusing to permit any initiatives that might appear divisive, Miliband silenced Labour. The Ming vase survived intact but it was completely empty. Which is why today, when the party looks inside to see what principles its policy on Europe should be based upon, it finds nothing.

What was at first a party twitching but still lively after the trauma of defeat in 2010 became stilled, then comatose. Proof was the dazed, toothless sound-bites of the would-be leaders who put themselves forward after Miliband stepped down, as soon as his general election defeat was confirmed. Had there been any debate about why the party had lost in 2010 – apparently there was not even an internal report on the fact that it had happened – or vigorous arguments about direction, the candidates who stepped forward might have enjoyed tested and developed positions. Not least on their policy towards the EU. Instead, overnight, under the glare of publicity, they were expected to go from ‘all pulling together’ to declaring what they stood for differently. Some of the apparently handsome bodies that emerged from the cupboard crumpled before they could stand. Three retained enough strength in their knees to remain upright long enough to collect the necessary number of MP nominations. But their mental zombyism was so obvious and embarrassing that 35 MPs put Jeremy Corbyn up as a candidate at literally the last minute. He was someone who believed in what he said, gasp! He may have been mummified from the early-pharaoic epoch of Benn and the four Noes, it was inconceivable that he would become the party’s Lazarus!  Instead, the idea was to use the gritty authenticity of his time-machine opinions to jolt at least one of the triumvirate out of their phantom zone.

The mummy proved to have more life in him than the three of them put together. He said austerity had been a bad idea and should be opposed. Sheer relief inspired trade unionists, online activists, an ‘Iraq generation’ of older Labour members and a surge of the young, to come together to deliver a vast collective cardiopulmonary resuscitation on the party, whacking the heart of Labour repeatedly, giving Corbyn himself the kiss of life, until the body stirred, to the astonishment of the parliamentary head and everybody else.

A European Labour party?

Utterly unprepared, the Corbyn team has found itself within months chucked into the referendum campaign. This is its first test of addressing the country while responding to a new issue. Every fibre of its make up resists the bellicose rhetoric of Blair and the soft version of the same from David Miliband, whose speech denounced Brexit as “fantasy” and “arson” arguing that the UK’s role is to be a world firefighter:

“If you want arson on the international order, vote to leave, but if you want Britain to remain with the firefighters, vote to remain.

As if the Iraq invasion had not left the Middle East in flames. Meanwhile, Gordon Brown is pursuing his own version of ‘Clout not Out’, writing in the FT, “We should be leading in Europe, not leaving it” – apparently unaware that the actual prime minister of the day has negotiated a deal that the referendum will endorse, if the country votes Remain, which explicitly marginalises the UK from exercising leadership in the EU.

How can the new Labour leadership respond in a creative way? First, it is clear that Corbyn himself for honourable reasons is quite unsuited to be prime minister and will never be elected to the role. The danger is that he comes to believe that he has a personal mandate as the chosen one and needs only “to survive” to succeed. This will entail doing as little as possible to provoke arguments within the Labour party. Ironically, he could be heading into a repeat of the same benighted unity-first strategy as Ed Miliband, betting on a crisis, Tory divisions and the rise of UKIP, to deliver him to Downing Street.

His shadow chancellor John McDonnell is being more creative. He has brought in public outsiders to refashion the argument on the economy. It is not the full monty of an open Labour that I argued for with respect to Corbyn’s golden opportunity, but it is serious start to creating imaginative and intelligent alliances essential for any significant challenge to power. He has just set out a case for a “transformative economic policy” to a New Economy Forum that he convened saying:

we need to make an absolute commitment to responsible financing by a future Labour government. Let me spell out what that means. The old rules meant the last Labour government relied too heavily on tax revenues from financial services, and too heavily on off-balance sheet spending through the Private Finance Initiative.

This remarkable statement got no press attention but suggests three things. Whether deliberately or not, McDonnell is responding to the findings of the Cruddas Inquiry into why Labour lost in 2015, that while “voters are economically radical they are fiscally prudent”. Second, by identifying New Labour’s over-reliance on financial services he is accepting Labour’s political responsibility for the debt crisis that followed the crash and initiating a fundamentally different approach to the embrace of globalisation and neoliberalism. The New Labour realists seeking to regain the party’s leadership will now have to confront the failure of their own economic strategy in exactly the way they should have done after 2010. Third, and most important for this argument, McDonnell is also creating an opening for an economic policy distinct from both the Eurozone’s and George Osborne style austerity. It can’t succeed without European allies but it might start to provide a framework open to them; and there can be no alternative to globalisation as we know it that is not also an alternative globalisation.

McDonnell has also led the Labour party in arguing for a positive approach to remaining in the EU, in his recent speech at the TUC. Again this got little coverage in the media – it being quite a long and thoughtful case. It contained the usual Labour version of the transactional benefits of being in the EU in terms of improving our environment and human rights. I can understand them being made in a forthright defensive way by trade unions, like Len McCluskey’s short, strong video message as the head of Unite. But they seem odd coming from a political leader as they imply Britain could not enjoy these advantages if Labour wins office. In two distinctive respects McDonnell advances the case for Remain. He comes out swinging in terms of the free movement of people across the EU, as a fundamental gain especially for younger people. The approach refuses to regard free movement as the commoditisation of labour and treats it as an advance in what it means to be human. Second, he argues for:

a reformed Europe under a Labour remain vote… when I talk about EU reform I don’t mean the ridiculous deals like the one struck by the Prime Minister to undermine workers’ rights in this country.

I want to see a more open and transparent EU by ending the secrecy that happens at the European Council and Ecofin conferences. I want the clear light of day to act as a detergent that will rid the EU of some of its more anti-democratic structures. And now more than at any other time in recent years there’s a growing coalition across Europe who share this desire. And who need our solidarity so we prevent the scenes we saw in Greece and across the EU.

Rather than leaving we should instead stay to make this positive case, and those of us who truly want to strengthen our sovereignty will be passing up this huge chance by voting to leave next month.

This is the welcome approach that will be advocated and explored by Another Europe is Possible. For Labour it comes with a health warning. The reason why the Tories struggle so hard with the EU despite its capitalist nature is that it dissolves the framework of Westminster-style sovereignty. It does the same to Labour also. Despite all the justified criticisms of the present, lamentable, undemocratic nature of the European Union, it still forces politics in Britain to raise its game. For Labour this means pluralism: sharing platforms with other parties, working with Scotland as another autonomous European nation, embracing proportional representation and therefore coalition politics, building human rights into our constitutional system and therefore working out how it can be codified. It means desisting from proposing that the UK “leads in Europe” and trying to become… a European country. Are the Labour party’s new members really up for this?

In writing this chapter I have appreciated the chance to talk with: Eunice Goes as well as Rosemary Bechler, Jon Cruddas, Jeremy Gilbert, Paul Hilder, Dan Iley-Williamson, Neal Lawson, Bruno Leipold, Mark Leonard, Nick Pearce, Benjamin Ramm, Adam Ramsay, Hilary Wainwright, Stuart White, Stewart Wood, all of whom are utterly absolved from any association with my judgements.

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