THE new leader of the British Labour Party was surely correct in pointing out this week that his father would have found it extremely difficult to make sense of the “Red Ed” label stuck on him by opponents during the drawn-out leadership contest. Ralph Miliband, after all, as one of Britain’s leading Marxist intellectuals, was among Labour’s fiercest critics from the left who believed that the party had long ago ceased to be a force capable of overseeing a socialist transformation.
He died in 1994, so he was spared the agony of watching Tony Blair make the party electable by rendering it almost ideologically indistinguishable from the Conservative Party. He would have been profoundly pained to see his elder son, David, acquire his reputation as a leading Blairite. And chances are he would have been only marginally less disappointed by the political predilections of his younger son, Ed, who now faces the onerous task of repositioning Labour as a responsible contender for power.
That’s partly because Ralph Miliband would have barely recognized the current concept of what’s left. When the so-called centre has shifted so far to the right, more or less any policies that don’t conform to the neoliberal template tend to be labelled left-wing. It inevitably follows that anything that smacks of socialism’s relatively egalitarian ideals is instinctively dismissed as radical extremism.
“When forces within social democratic parties have arisen – and they repeatedly have – to push their leaders to the left, these forces have sooner or later been defeated, among other reasons because leaders under challenge could always claim that the left was not only unreasonable, unrealistic, etc, but also that its challenge must be fatally damaging to the electoral chances of the party, given the spectacle presented to the electorate by a divided and squabbling party,” Ralph Miliband and Leo Panitch wrote in an article in the 1987 Socialist Register, during Margaret Thatcher’s heyday.
Even so, they would have found it hard to imagine Thatcher sanctifying any Labour leader as a worthy heir, as she did in the case of Blair. Among what Thatcher saw as her greatest achievements was her success in stripping trade unions of their power – a trend that Blair enthusiastically adopted, notwithstanding the Labour Party’s historical association with unions. It is hardly surprising, then, that many of the unions, which still own one-third of the electoral college that picks the party leader, chose not to align themselves with the man perceived as Blair’s heir, David Miliband.
Union support was crucial in delivering the leadership to his brother, Ed, who failed to win a majority of votes in the other two sections of the electoral college – among members of constituency parties, and among Labour members of the British parliament and the European Parliament (MPs and MEPs). This is perceived as a disadvantage for Ed Miliband, who has become the party’s first leader not to enjoy majority support among these two components of the college.
He can hardly be blamed, though, for the party’s electoral system. It has long been argued that if the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats can pick their leaders on the basis of one member, one vote, there is no reason why Labour should not follow suit. It’s a valid argument, but Ed Miliband did not choose the system under which he was elected. He may have won the contest against his brother by a small margin, relying to a large extent on the second-preference votes of the remaining candidates, but he won it fair and square.
Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, this means he has been put on the defensive. He feels obliged to contest not just the “Red Ed” tag, but also the perception that as a potential prime minister he will be unduly beholden to the unions – particularly the public service unions that are bearing the brunt the Conservative-Liberal coalition’s painful spending cuts.
He is also in the invidious position of having to combat the perception that he is the ideal opposition leader from the Conservative point of view, given that the right-wing government will find it easy – with the inevitable support of the reactionary press – to rubbish him. It would have had a tougher time with David.
That may be so, if only because the latter falls in the category of being sufficiently right-wing to be barely distinguishable from the Tories on a number of fronts – not least in his efforts, as foreign secretary in the last Labour government, to cover up Britain’s role in egregious human rights abuses. Ed positioned himself, at least in recent months, as an opponent of the Iraq war. His brother could not have credibly followed suit. Neither of them, though, has lately said much about Afghanistan. Or, for that matter, the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
Their mother, Marion Kozak, a Holocaust survivor, is a leading member of Jews for Justice for Palestinians; unlike her late husband, she never quit the Labour Party, but refused to take sides in the contest between her sons. It is not surprising, though, that the British media has focused almost obsessively on the fraternal aspects of the battle, and speculated endlessly about its implications for relations within the family. David was ostensibly gracious in defeat, but it was not clear at the time of writing whether he would accept a senior post in his younger brother’s shadow cabinet.
Ed Miliband’s trajectory as Labour leader will be interesting to watch. Tuesday’s speech to the party conference in Manchester was deemed to be his first test, but a great deal more will depend on how he performs in parliament against David Cameron and Nick Clegg. That in turn will determine his status within the party: should fellow MPs perceive him as the portender of a losing streak electorally, there may well be moves to replace him ahead of the next general election. But Ed – whose candidacy was endorsed not just by Tony Benn (for whom he worked as an intern while a teenager) but also by Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley (who are decidedly less revered on the left, but nonetheless seem almost radical in comparison with Blair and his acolytes) – has demonstrated that he’s capable of springing surprises. Regardless of whether big brother is watching.
It would be unreasonable not to, at least tentatively, wish him well.