Ed Agonistes

From Syria to summer wrangling to the union link, Ed Miliband is struggling to keep Labour united, even at the cost of weakening himself. So this conference, you only have to look around the hall to understand the pressures he is under.

Not long after Miliband’s election as leader, various Labour worthies began congratulating the party for avoiding the ‘circular firing squad’ that followed our many previous defeats. That achievement was a real one, and was secured by Miliband’s adept conciliations of various wings of the party.

You might not think it, watching Miliband reprise his self-definition by Blair-abnegation during the Syria debate – there too we were witness to a valiant attempt to hold the Labour party together, to preserve that precious, hard-won unity.

Consider: If the leader of the Labour party had accepted the government motion on Syria, several shadow ministers would have considered their positions. If he had outright opposed military action in Syria, other frontbenchers would have been equally unhappy. So Miliband, in a series of meetings that people around Westminster describe in very different ways, sought a way to keep everyone together. Labour would oppose the government, but in terms that would be acceptable to both interventionists and peaceniks.

To sceptical ears, it was not a particularly convincing argument. Miliband’s own speech betrayed the hesitancy of a man struggling to convince himself of his own case. But if David Cameron had been able to muster his own forces, that would have been the end of any trivial internal problems. Labour would have managed the successful manoeuvre of being in favour of a military action in principle, but against it in particular.

Unfortunately, relying on the basic political competence of this government is a losing bet. The prime minister lost the vote and immediately declared unconditional surrender to an argument Miliband had not made. In turn Labour shifted from ‘Yes, if’ to ‘No way’. This left many MPs uneasy, but still able to stick together, and that is an achievement.

The same ‘unity first’ approach explains the frustrations of the summer just gone. After all, what were Labour MPs worrying about? That there was not enough boldness, or too much? That we were too shouty, or not shouty enough? At the heart of their concerns is the air of provisionality, of uncertainty about our party’s position. We are less angry than when in the full-throated opposition we enjoy, but somewhat less detailed than the government-in-waiting we aspire to be.

Why? Because Miliband is trying to take as much of the party with him as he can. If he moves too rapidly he risks a rupture, so he leads in a consensual, slow, consultative way, referencing and including a pretty broad swath of opinion, and stepping back if he finds he is pushing things too far, too fast.

This is actually pretty self-sacrificing, as the result of this is that everyone who wishes to go further, or faster, even if in opposite directions, will unite in criticising the person they think is holding them back by listening to other voices. Miliband becomes the target of frustrations aimed elsewhere.

A similar process of unity-through-sacrifice is under way over the union link.

When the Falkirk selection emerged into the national gaze, the Labour leadership understood that to do nothing was to risk looking merely like a front operation for the union leadership and also to appear to be complicit in the kind of machine politics that Miliband himself has spoken out against. To keep reformers among his own allies happy, action was needed to prevent harm being done to the party and a major reform was launched.

The trouble came with the fact that the action taken caused significant alienation with the union general secretaries. After heated rhetoric on both sides and the GMB’s decision to reduce its affiliation immediately, it became vital to avoid the most damaging elements of a fight from which no one would emerge with much credit (in all factions and groups there are a few people in Westminster who shuffle uncomfortably when the question of selections and patronage is raised).

So both sides decided to back down a little.

However, it is Miliband who is putting party unity before his own image, as, although Karie Murphy will not be selected as the next candidate for Falkirk, and the recently recruited Unite members will not be involved in the selection, stating that no one had done anything against the rules means those who felt that the leadership had, well, rushed to war with the unions, will claim vindication.

So one way of looking at Labour’s internal debates on everything from Syria to Falkirk is that Miliband is taking all the pain on himself to ensure party unity, though he is getting precious little credit for this just yet.

When he gets up to make his leader’s speech at conference Miliband’s audience will include many people whose tensions with each other have failed to spill out into open warfare, and who do not even give him much credit for securing the peace.

However, if that party unity creates the space for the vaunted policy announcements trailed at conference to be centre-stage, not factional fights, then that will give Miliband a chance to show he has the party under control, unified and heading in his direction.

For Labour’s leader, that could be worth all the pain.

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Cartoon: Adrian Teal

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