For my first Duck post to be so parochial is a shame, but I can’t resist commenting on the result of Labour’s leadership election, declared a couple of hours ago. For someone such as myself who was once, briefly, one of Ralph Miliband’s students at LSE in the 1960s, the idea that the son of the author of Parliamentary Socialism should now be the leader of the British Labour Party is weird. That he should have obtained that post by beating his elder brother is positively surreal. Brothers have quite often competed for the top job in old-style monarchies – indeed, in the Ottoman Empire it was standard practice for the winner to have his male siblings garrotted, food for thought for both David and Ed Miliband this evening– but I can’t think of any similar instance in a modern political party. But perhaps we ought not to be surprised. David and Ed may be actual brothers, but virtually the entire leadership of the British political class, including the Prime Minister and his Deputy, have so much in common that they form an unofficial fraternity. They are all white men, late 30s or early 40s, educated at Oxford or Cambridge, former political advisers and policy wonks none of whom have ever held what members of the public would regard as a proper job for more than a month or two. They even wear the same suits and ties.
Ed beat his elder brother on the fourth round of voting by 50.6% to 49.4% after trailing on the first three rounds, in itself hardly a ringing endorsement, but more significant is the composition of his support. The Labour Party system for electing a leader, introduced in 1983, employs an electoral college in which one third of the votes go to the party’s Members of Parliament and European MPs, one third to ordinary members of the party in the constituencies, and one third to the unions. David won the first two categories (heavily in the early ballots) and Ed got home only by winning a larger proportion of the union vote. He is the first leader of the party elected under the new system not to have the support of all three elements of the college.
Miliband’s first speech as leader made the usual ritual references to a fresh start and reaching out to the public, but the reality is that the unions voted for him because he declared himself willing to support them in their campaign against the cuts in public spending that the Coalition is about to introduce, while David supported a more nuanced approach, recognising that the deficit poses a real problem and that the Labour Party, if it were still in government would be proposing at least some cuts. This was the position on which the Labour government fought the last election; David believed it was the correct policy and – rightly in my opinion – that that the general public simply wouldn’t accept as credible a reversal of this stance in opposition. Just such a reversal is what the new party leader is now going to be held to by the unions who put him in power.
Quite right too, I imagine some members of the traditional left will say – but an indiscriminate policy of support for industrial action in these circumstances will simply play into the hands of the Coalition. The core electoral battleground in the UK nowadays is in the southern half of England – Labour wins the Celtic fringe and much of the North, but this year only around 50 of the ca. 300 (out of 650 in total) parliamentary seats in the South of the country. Not enough – and the last thing that is going to bring these voters back is a campaign of strikes. Moreover, back in the 1970s the Unions were powerful enough to bring their members out for weeks at a time, and really did challenge the ability of government to govern. Nowadays the rank-and-file won’t stand for the loss of pay such long strikes lead to, and loss of legal immunities make long strikes hazardous for the unions themselves; it’s a matter of 24 hour stoppages at most, which irritate the public, but leave the government unworried.
Perhaps Ed Miliband will be able to find a way to keep the unions happy while not alienating the people he will need to vote for him in 2015 when the next election comes along. But he’ll have to do this knowing that the MPs in the Parliamentary party, and the ordinary members in the constituencies wanted someone else for the job. He might surprise us all by squaring the circle, but somehow I doubt it – my bet is that the terms under which he won the leadership of the party will ensure that he never wins the Premiership. That was certainly true of an earlier Labour Leader (and strong supporter of Ed), Neil Kinnock, and it is the view of the Government which has been silently praying that Ed would beat his brother. One senses a sigh of relief in David Cameron’s very generous welcome to the new leader.
As someone favourably disposed to the Labour Party I think this is regrettable – but even a neutral might feel that if there is one thing we have learnt in Britain over the last thirty years under both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair, it is that good government positively requires a strong and credible opposition. Perhaps more important, the lack of a strong, well-led Labour Party will have consequences in Europe where the Right continue to dominate (note the unprecedented strength of the extreme right in the recent Swedish election) – and there’s a real irony here. Last November, when Europe was appointing its ‘President’ and ‘Foreign Minister’, David Miliband would have been a shoo-in for the latter job; he turned it down in order to stay in British politics. How he must be regretting that decision now – and given the zero impact of the person who actually got the job (Lady Ashton since you ask) the rest of the European left will share those regrets.