25 May 2011

At Last The 1996 Show: deconstructing Labour's hard right

It's now 8 months since Ed Miliband's knife-edge victory in the Labour leadership contest. I still can't quite believe he did it - and neither can the hard right of the Labour party. I define Labour's hard right as a strip of LINO (Labour In Name Only) hacks who, still unwilling to accept that their preferred candidate (Ed's older brother) lost, have taken it upon themselves to attempt to undermine Ed's leadership at every turn, with the eventual objective of replacing him with a clone of Tony Blair.

Note that we're not talking about the right wing of the Labour party here - which presumably comprises several tens of thousands of people, at least (given that most, though by no means all, of the right-wing votes in the Labour leadership contest went to David Miliband.) Many of the Labour right were unhappy with the leadership result - apparently the Progress (main right-wing Labour faction) "rally" at the party conference two days after the result was announced was more like a wake - but most of them have accepted it and are working with it. No, I'm talking about a small number of bloggers and journalists who are doing their best to whip up anti-Ed feelings and a sense of crisis so that he may be deposed at some point before the next election.

The most high profile print journalist in the hard right camp is Phil Collins - not the ex-Genesis singer/drummer and 1980s solo music criminal, but an ex-speech writer for Tony Blair of the same name. Which is a pity in many ways because the ex-Genesis Phil, for all his faults, is a far more likeable character and would probably have more insight on the future direction of the Labour party than ex-Blair Phil. He could hardly have less. I can't link to any of Phil Collins's Times pieces because they are behind a paywall. But you can get an approximation by reading any blogger or political commentator on the Telegraph website (Mary Riddell excepted). Now the Telegraph is of course a Tory paper. And that's why you can get an ersatz Phil Collins experience by reading the Telegraph - because Collins is a Tory as well! Which is of course WHY he was Tony Blair's speechwriter - because Blair was also a Tory. He started out in politics as a conservative and ended up as a Conservative.

If anyone disagrees with this assessment of Phil Collins, feel free to point me to something in his previous writings which contradicts it. I know that Collins now describes himself as a "liberal", not a conservative, but so does Nick Clegg, and we've seen what that means in practice - propping up a Tory government. Very appropriate. I find Collins more contemptible than even the Guardian's Julian Glover. Glover is one of the most odious columnists in British journalism, delighting in making poor people better off, smashing the state, and generally advocating a policy of making people's lives a misery by withdrawing essential public services from them so that they are "more free". But at least he doesn't make the pretence of supporting the Labour party while being viscerally opposed to all its policies. He's a bastard, but an honest bastard. Phil is a duplicitous bastard.

However, Mr Collins's efforts, funded by the Murdoch press as they are, are strict amateurism compared to the professional Ed Miliband sabotage operation being conducted by Dan Hodges of the New Statesman and Labour Uncut blogs.

Dan has emerged on the blogosphere over the last 12 months as Ed Miliband's leading self-appointed critic, with a simple modus operandi which involves cutting and repasting the same basic article with very minor cosmetic alterations and references to recent events, again and again and presumably being paid full whack for these minor alterations. The article template is always a desperate exercise in Blairite trolling, summarisable in a few bullet points, as follows:

  • Ed is performing badly.
  • An unnamed shadow cabinet member has recently told Dan that Ed will be finished unless his performance improves soon.
  • The party is demoralised.
  • (if there has been a recent election result) the results were awful. Labour was unable to capture any swing voters from the Tories.
  • Ed needs to drop all this "progressive majority" bullshit, stop chasing ex-Liberal Democrat voters, and start courting Tory voters - preferably by adopting policy positions that are indistinguishable from the Tories.
  • Tony Blair is pissed off with Ed trashing New Labour's record.
  • Tony Blair is the blueprint for future Labour success.

Now, I'm not going to say that Ed Miliband's performance as Labour leader has been extraordinary, or brilliant. But it is good - and it's improving. For what it's worth (not much in my opinion,but some of us set great store by set-pieces), Ed regularly gives Cameron a verbal kicking at PMQs. His set-piece speeches are excellent, if a little light on specifics at the moment (more on that later). He's set a policy review process in motion that encompasses 23 policy areas and will run for the next 18 months - which at this stage in the parliament is eminently sensible. He's got good people in most of the top shadow cabinet positions (after some hiccups at the start). What else would people like Dan have Ed doing?

The answer, of course, is that this has nothing to do with Ed's performance in the job per se, and everything to do with the fact that the Labour hard right can't accept that their man lost. As it happens, I think David Miliband's pitch for the Labour leadership, while to the right of Ed's, was not a neo-Blairite hard right platform. For example he showed an interest in active industrial policy which was completely alien to the Labour hard right, who are still in thrall to neoliberalism and still don't quite believe the economic crisis happened. This explains why David attracted considerable support from the soft left of the Labour party as well as the right.

But at the end of the day, David Miliband should have been a shoo-in for Labour leader, and he blew it with poor campaigning. It wasn't all his fault; the unsolicited endorsement by Peter Mandelson was deeply damaging. But David had every opportunity to distance himself from Mandelson - and indeed Blair - but chose not to, and paid the price for keeping the wrong friends. By contrast, Ed fought a brilliant guerilla insurgency campaign - so brilliant, in fact, that even he couldn't believe he'd actually won the contest. To me, that says something positive about Ed's qualities as a campaigner - and something negative about David Miliband's qualities as a campaigner - that has been largely ignored, and shouldn't have been.

But to the neo-Blairite hard right, all this is evidence that Ed is, in some way, a usurper - Labour's Richard III figure, complete with hunchback and funny walk. And so they won't be happy until he's been deposed and presumably shuffled off to some trade union convalescent home at Eastbourne, or something.

Of course, it's not going to happen. For one thing, as Hodges himself has pointed out, the Labour hard right has no obvious challenger. With David Miliband showing no appetite for the rematch, Jimmy Purnell retired, and other neo-Blairites laughably insubstantial figures (e.g. Jim Murphy, Pat McFadden) there simply is no-one out there to carry the flame. And even if someone did emerge, Labour has no tradition of knifing leaders before elections, by contrast to the Tories, for whom it's bread and butter (Thatcher, IDS). If the Blairites couldn't get rid of Gordon Brown before an election they stand sweet F.A. chance of toppling Ed, no matter what his poll ratings are.

Also the Labour hard right has no policy suggestions whatsoever - NONE - beyond tame capitulation to the Tories. Thus we see that on Labour Uncut (which seems to be the leading internal Labour right blog), ex-party chairman Peter Watt has recently called for Labour to endorse the Tories' cuts strategy lock, stock and barrel. This would be intellectual suicide, instantly allowing George Osborne to claim that he was dictating the terms of the economic debate and making Ed Balls look like an imbecile. Given the mounting evidence that the cuts are exerting a huge toll on the British economy, it's also economically wrong-headed. The real reason Watt is suggesting this is that Tony Blair accepted Tory spending plans in 1996. He didn't need to do it (does ANYONE - even Michael Heseltine - believe that the Tories would have won in 1997 if not for Labour accepting Tory spending plans?), it was a disaster in terms of the performance of public services (the extra 2 years of vicious squeezing of spending from 1997 to 1999 paralysed the NHS and state education for several years and made it much harder for Labour to get any improvements in those services until fairly late into its second term, if that), but hey, Tony Blair did it so it must be the right thing to do, right?

The basic point here is that the Labour hard right is still living in 1996. Their thinking hasn't moved on in 15 years. I'm not saying that Ed Miliband, or the soft left (or indeed soft right) of the Labour party, have all the answers - because they patently haven't - but the possibility exists, however faint, that they will Get It. Whereas the only place that following the advice of people like Hodges, Collins and Watt will get Labour is belly laughs and a walloping from a resurgent - and thankful - Tory party at the next election. The Labour hard right are ersatz Tories, bad losers, cheap punks and imbeciles to a man/woman, and their best course of action would be to shut up shop, think about why the hell they are in the Labour party, and if they can't reconcile their membership with their fundamental conservatism, perhaps best to retreat to the massed ranks of the ConDem coalition - where this sort of bullshit is looked on a good deal more kindly.


Van Patten said...

A serious comment shortly, but perhaps in either a new edition of 'Brass eye' or 'Nathan Barley' we could get some 'nonce sense' from the Phil Collins you mention. I don't even bother to quote from the Murdoch press anymore. anyone willing to pay for 'the Times' paywall ought to lose the vote.

Van Patten said...

Also one piece ofnitpicking - you condemn the admittedly somewhat curious 'Julian Glover' (is he related to the character actor from Empire Strikes back?) for 'making poor people better off'. I assume this is a typo?

Van Patten said...

It's hard to argue with some of the sentiments here. Glover, from what I have read of his contributions, is basically the Mary Riddell of the Guardian's journalistic corps. Someone whose politics seems to be completely at odds with most of the remaining journalists. That many of those seem to me utterly delusional (Polly Toynbee the prime, but far from the only culprit)doesn't make your point any less fair.

The issue I have with Miliband E (who lest we forget you damned with the Microblair II epithet) is that he does seem a somewhat insubstantial, rather inexperienced figure, and gives that impression when you hear him speak. Whilst I think you are right to point out the essential vacuousness of the Blair regime, in purely electoral terms, I cannot see Miliband emulating his 3 substantial victories. Lest we forget William Hague regularly gave Blair a pounding in his ill fated tenure as opposition Leader but it only gained him one seat in 2001. You set great stall in him achieving victory in 2015 but at the moment I don't see it. As for your characterisation of the Labour front bench as having 'good people in most positions' I have seldom seen a more misapplied tag. Such beings remind me of some of the 18th century Whig and tory administrations in their level of inadequacy. You'd be right to say the coalition isn't much better but that perhaps says more about the political scene in general than any positive qualities of the opposition.

In short, I'd agree that the Blairites are 'pissing in the wind' but I'd say Miliband E needs to hurry that policy review along and set out some 'Clear red water'. My fear for him is he risks the fate of Hague and IDS in that he's scared off by tabloid scaremongering about 'anarchist hooligans' when appearing at the 'March for the alternative', scard to set out detailed left wing policy prescriptions for fear of misrepresentation by the Express, Mail and other people who are never going to be reconciled to his viewpoint. I'd welcome him adopting some of your policy platforms, not least becasue it would actually mark distinctive policy positions within British politics rather than what a number of Telegraph bloggers call the 'Liblabcon''consenus' which seems to hold sway at the moment. Read the current issue of Private Eye 'Called to ordure' if you want to see a deconstruction of why the opposition is seen to be currently struggling.

Hal Berstram said...

Love the idea that The Times's Phil Collins could do "nonce sense". Hilarious.

The Julian Glover thing was indeed a typo. He's not the British character actor (whose greatest moment was surely as Scaroth in Dr Who "City Of Death") sadly.

I think Glover is basically in the Guardian offices to provide a punchbag for other columnists, you're right.

Interesting on Hague vs Blair at PMQs. I don't really follow these things but as far as I did it seemed to me that Blair was pretty much even stevens at PMQs against most Tory leaders post-'97 with the exception of Duncan Smith (who was crap) and Cameron (who was regularly better than Blair because Blair basically couldn't be bothered by that stage).

Of the top jobs in the shadow cabinet, I'd say that Miliband, Balls, Burnham, Cooper and Alexander are all capable performers; Healey rather less so.

Van Patten said...

Check out the Oborne article in the Telegraph today - chimes in with this one quite well, and the Balls post I notice in the 'Drafts' section.