Death of the Center-Left

Can you spot the difference? Clegg, Cameron and Miliband.

It’s been nearly five years since Ed Miliband was elected as Labour leader. From the start, the right-wing press heaped scorn upon him. Of all the attacks foisted upon him the ‘fratricidal’ agent charge, who stepped over his own brother to grab the big seat, backed by trade unions, was perhaps the most revealing.

This was the end of New Labour, or so the party establishment thought, Anthony Giddens’ glorious Third Way, representing Labour’s formal reconciliation with neoliberalism. Despite his contrarian opinions on Israel-Palestine, it was a misplaced fear. Being in favor of a two-state solution did not mean supporting a reinvigorated welfare state in Great Britain.

But that, of course, is beside the point. Britain’s press would have still preferred David Miliband. The older brother retains impeccable centre-right credentials, whereas Ed Miliband is a less convincing Blairite apparatchik. He is everything one would expect of a Labour politician, loyal to the party and its record. So David Miliband could count on right-wing support, but also capture the support of left-liberals still circling the wagon.

Labour’s new leader never had a chance. The centre-left didn’t take him seriously, and the right viewed him as a potential left-wing interloper. The man born Edward Samuel was soon stuck with ‘Red Ed’ for a nickname, due to nothing less than the ingenuity of the English chattering-classes, almost as if he represented a new turn. Alas, the truth is far less impressive.

Permanent triangulation

Much has been made of the mansion tax proposals issued by Labour. Few feel it necessary to bring up the shift of the overrated centre-ground in recent decades. The fact that Ed Miliband advocates lower taxes than the Thatcher government is missing from the picture. In the past, Miliband made statements supporting the 50% rate on top earners, but the rate was 83% under Thatcher and she cut it to 60% by the time she left. Whether or not Miliband would change course from a 40% rate seems doubtful.

Over the last few years, Miliband has shown little consistency, let alone conviction. We’ve had Blue Labour, predistribution, and even One Nation Labour. Evening Standard columnist Matthew D’Ancona, a man who enjoys lunch with George Osborne, accused the Labour leader of sparking a ‘divisively left-wing’ flame. As if the plagiarism of a nineteenth-century conservative slogan could ever be taken as ‘left-wing’, which was probably the plan all along.

Ed Miliband. Wolverhampton, 2011.
Ed Miliband. Wolverhampton, 2011.

On public services, the Miliband line is austerity lite, smaller cuts, not a sign of deviation from the dogma around debt, with adjustments to taxes to help pay off the deficit. In other words, Labour has adjusted to the terms of the Conservative-Liberal government it is meant to be opposing. This is an old story. David Cameron raised tuition fees to £9,000 a year, but it was the Blairites, who imposed the first fees, and raised them to more than £3,200 annually.

Now Ed Miliband advocates fees of £6,000 a year. At the surface level, it looks like a modest call for reform, but in actuality it may be triangulation par excellence. As Anne McElvoy has argued, the cut in fees actually has regressive implications that can be detected upon close examination. Unless Miliband plans to subsidise higher education more than Cameron, it seems the lower fee will mean less public money per student. The basic reorientation of resources and funding will remain unchanged, and possibly worsened, unless fundamental change is pursued.

It’s either a progressive graduate tax, or free universal coverage. Both require the abandonment of the politics of frugality, which continues to infect UK politics, in order to rejuvenate public institutions, especially education and health-care. Miliband has decided to make the NHS the centrepiece of his programme, which is a wise move, it must be said. But the pledge is just to set limits on private contractors in the health service.

Profit caps can be lifted, funding can be cut again, and the general thrust will remain the same. New Labour outsourced health services to private companies. The number of contracts increased by 60% during their tenure, while the coalition has increased these contracts by 20%. These half-measures and compromised proposals, which sound like they’ve been written on the back of a fag packet, pose little challenge given the fundamental damage inflicted by the Cameron government.

The cost of not fighting

The early signs of the Miliband leadership were not promising. He shirked from making promises early on, apparently to avoid commitments he couldn’t fulfil, probably to avert any infighting. Labour veterans will remember, with no nostalgia, the splits in the 1980s, which ruptured the party’s electoral chances, consigning it to the wilderness for the best part of two decades. So long as the party remains united, it can back neoliberal policies.

In this regard, sectarianism has its virtues over unity. As Leo Panitch has emphasised, it might be necessary to divide ranks, and prompt a full-blown confrontation, in order to rescue the official social democratic party from its own rightward drift. Contestation can lead to progressive outcomes, but plenty of people prefer to play the safe game holding onto a scintilla of hope. The last battle for the life and soul of the Labour Party was fought in the 1980s.

The post-war Labour Party has consistently sought to buttress the system and avoid the redistribution of wealth and power. In the 1960s and ‘70s, the plan was to secure ever-rising living standards through adjustments to income and jobs policy, as well as an inflationary monetary approach, to make the pie appear bigger for everyone. Then in the 1990s New Labour promised it could do this by further compromise and, ultimately, by heaping greater debt onto people.

Likewise, Miliband promises to tweak the system just enough to placate the incorrigible masses. He tries to make the right noises about taxes, health care, jobs and housing, but ultimately falls short. We’re told he’s the official left candidate, and yet he talks about ‘responsible’ capitalism. The days of Bevan and Attlee are long gone. These may be the end times for the centre-left.


Photographs courtesy of Ed Miliband and Surian Soosay. Published under a Creative Commons license.

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