22 June 2012

Ed Wars Episode 2: Attack of the Moans

Firstly, many apologies for being inactive on the blog for almost a month. I was on holiday for a few weeks and then it took a while just to get back in the groove of things. I've got a lot of stuff to catch up on, so the next couple of weeks will (hopefully) several posts, and many of them will be on the long side. But increasingly I'm using Twitter for the soundbite stuff and so this blog will be picking up the slack on slightly longer, polemic-style, outings.

So, without further ado.... what a difference six months has made for Ed Miliband. At the end of last year, with the Tories temporarily in the lead in the polls due to David Cameron's ludicrous "veto" in Brussels, you could tell that the Labour hard right were sharpening the knives. This anti-Ed activity was covered in some detail in my previous post "The Bantam Menace" - referring to the rather small size of the threat Ed faced. I always thought it was unlikely that Ed would face a challenge this side of the next general election, even when the Tories were marginally in front, because the Labour right - who have (mostly) hated Ed ever since he announced he was standing for the leadership in May 2010 - had no obvious challenger. The most high-profile right wingers at cabinet level are Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg and Caroline Flint, none of whom look like they could attract enough support across the Labour leadership electoral college to beat Ed. Other torch-bearers for the Labour hard right are mostly in the Lords (e.g. Adonis, Mandelson) or have retired hurt from front-line politics (Milburn, Purnell). Very few of the visible faces in the new crop of MPs look like Blairite right-wingers, either. And the original great hope of "continuity New Labour", David Miliband, crashed and burned so spectacularly in 2010 that it's unlikely he would ever want to put himself through such a gruelling process again.

So in short, it is looking rather desperate for the Labour right in terms of a direct challenge to the leadership, and has done since October 2010, really. Progress (surely the most Orwellian misnaming of a political grouping ever?) realised very early on that, lacking a candidate of their own for the leadership, their best hope was a "Manchurian candidate" figure - a pliable centrist who could be leaned on to be more receptive to hard-right ideas than Ed is. In terms of "big hitters", Ed Balls was out because despite largely agreeing with the Labour right on financial regulation (i.e. we don't really need it, despite everything we've seen since 2008) he's too statist and too Keynesian, and too  arrogant, to be a conduit for Blairism. Also, he performed dismally in the 2010 leadership election Yvette Cooper on the other hand, who had stayed out of the 2010 election in deference to Balls (her husband), was a distinct possibility. And so last year we began seeing a wave of pro-Cooper articles from Dan Hodges and the like. The idea was that the anti-Ed barrage would build to a crescendo if Labour's performance in the local elections in May 2012 was as weak as May 2011, building momentum for an autumn 2012 challenge from Cooper.

The strategy failed dismally, largely because Labour stormed into a poll lead of around 10 percentage points in the wake of George Osborne's extraordinarily botched Budget of March 2012. This laid the ground for a good - although not exceptional - local election performance for Labour. The one beacon of hope for the right was that Ken Livingstone's defeat in the London mayoral contest would prove a big blot on Ed's copybook - but this doesn't seem to have happened, largely because Ken's sheer eccentricity as a candidate this time round has led to him taking personal blame for the defeat, with Ed largely insulated from criticism.

Instead, Ed has been consolidating his position - something that's much easier to do now that shadow cabinet elections have been abolished and he has control over appointments. Key allies in the 2010 intake like Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna have been quickly promoted to the shadow cabinet, Balls has been brought inside the tent and is performing reasonably well as Shadow Chancellor, and last month the Blairite Liam Byrne was replaced as head of the unweildy and labyrinthine Labour policy review by leading "soft left" thinker Jon Cruddas. It is this last event that symbolises the intellectual exhaustion and capitulation of the Labour hard right. Reduced to arguing for Labour to become an anaemic "lite" version of the ConDems in pamphlets like Policy Network's In the Black Labour, they have been caught completely unawares by Labour's improvement in the opinion polls, and would probably have started to fade away completely had it not been for the rather ham-fisted intervention of the GMB Union, which attacked Progress at its annual conference, with GMB general secretary Paul Kenny promising to submit a motion to the Labour Conference in the autumn which would "outlaw" Progress as part of the Labour party in its present form. This was, frankly, a daft intervention, which makes Progress look like martyrs being hounded out of the party by the union paymasters. As things stand, Progress is yesterday's organisation. Just as the high point of the hard left within the Labour party was Tony Benn's narrow defeat to Denis Healey in the 1981 deputy leadership campaign, which was followed by a long period of decline for that faction, similarly the high point of Progress was David Miliband's narrow defeat to Ed in 2010. Progress is an organisation on a downward curve. It has considerable funding from Lord Sainsbury and various corporates, but is being progressively marginalised by Ed Miliband, and will probably be only a minor force, with a couple of token cabinet members, in the next Labour government. The GMB's interests would be best served by letting Progress continue its slow decline rather than giving it publicity and a moral high ground it doesn't deserve with comedy motions to "outlaw" it.