Tuesday, September 28, 2010

It's hard to criticise Ed Miliband for making common cause with the progressive bits of the coalition

So 72 hours and a keynote conference speech later, and it's still not entirely clear to what extent Ed Miliband represents an authentic break from New Labour. Iain Dale, for what it's worth, seems convinced that the younger brother's left-wing positioning during the leadership campaign was effectively a confidence trick, while much of the rest of the right-wing blogoshere is equally certain that we've just seen a return to a John Smith/Neil Kinnock-style Labour party. My guess is that Danny Finkelstein (someone whose analysis I usually don't have much time for) is closest to the mark in observing that, while Miliband is most certainly not "Red Ed", he is in fact slightly to the left of New Labour. If that's how his leadership pans out, my verdict would be - could be a lot better, but definite progress. It would be churlish to say otherwise.

Certainly it seems we can rest assured that the branding of the party as New Labour is now at a definitive end - Miliband used the term repeatedly in his speech, sometimes approvingly, but always in the past tense.

Despite my ambivalence over the content of the speech, I was slightly puzzled about Andrew Neil's assessment that this was an unalloyed dash back to the centre ground (what most of us in Scotland would call the centre-right), and that it was now hard to see where the differences are either with Labour's past or with the Cameron/Clegg coalition. Really? It was of course to be expected that there would be some distancing from the unions, but even just off the top of my head, can you imagine Tony Blair saying that :

* There should be a living wage over and above the national minimum wage?

* The gap between rich and poor does matter, and that the most equal societies are the most successful?

* The Iraq war was a mistake, was not a war of last resort, and undermined the UN?

* Civil liberties (or, as Blair used to put it, "that civil libertarian nonsense") have been too far eroded in the name of the war on terror?

And as far as any shared agenda with the coalition is concerned, that was to a considerable extent confined to the areas where the current government are on the correct side of the libertarian/authoritarian divide, and where New Labour were always on the wrong side. It's scarcely a departure from progressive values to accept that Ken Clarke may have a point about the futility of short prison sentences, for instance.

But I did have a number of concerns, and by far the greatest was the fair wind Miliband seemed to be prepared to give to Iain Duncan Smith, and to the havoc he might be about to wreak on the benefits system, leaving the lives of the most vulnerable wrecked in his wake. However, the extraordinary common ground between the two parties on this area has been a constant for a decade-and-a-half now, so I suppose we can't expect miracles. Tony Blair's humiliation in seeing his successor as Labour leader join mainstream opinion in denouncing the invasion of Iraq - and receive warm applause for it from the same party conference the former PM so very recently held in the palm of his hand - will have to suffice for today.


  1. I'll just give you this as the man speaks with forked tongue, suprise not.


  2. I take your point, Cynical, although I dare say a great many members of the Blair cabinet who voted for the war (and subsequently maintained that public support) privately harboured doubts - who knows, perhaps including David Miliband himself. Yes, it's the youngest brother's immense good fortune that he was never put in that dilemma and can now have his cake and eat it, and yes the fact that he's done so is in a sense opportunistic, but I'm still very glad that he said what he did today. The symbolism of the leader of the Labour party telling his conference that Iraq was a mistake and being applauded for it was, after all those years of Blair and his apologists desperately trying to hold the line, quite a sight to behold.