Friday, June 11, 2010

Why Abbott or Ed Miliband can revive Labour

Why a clear break from New Labour without going too far to the left is the only hope for the party.

With the nominations closing on Wednesday, the quest for the new leader of the Labour Party is now officially underway.

Thanks to David Miliband's last-minute gasp of generosity, the contest was handed a lease of life with the addition of the only contender who doesn't fit the template of a fortysomething white middle-class male opposing two fortysomething rich white males already in government (Cameron and Clegg).

Diane Abbott ensured that there is still a glimmer of hope in the Labour Party and that the millions of activists, voters and supporters who took a battering after the other during Tony Blair and Gordon Brown's era have not been shut off completely.

The background is simple. True, like some die-hard New Labourites point out, their party managed an unprecedented 13 years in power and three consecutive election victories. But, if you excuse my analogy, it's like a fat bloke stuffing his face without checking whether the amount (or quality) of food he's guzzling is going to give him the shits or make him sick.

The consequences of Blairism on the party and its identity have been devastating.

Since 1997, Labour lost a staggering five million votes as well as more than half its membership. Just to give you an idea, in the period 1997-2007, around 230,000 people chucked their Labour Party card into the bin.

Not only that. In constantly sticking two fingers up at its grassroots voters, the Party lost credibility. It doesn't know where it stands anymore. On many issues, such as civil liberties - but also aspects of the economy, the environment and, more recently, immigration - it even slipped to the right of the Tories. On others, like workers' rights, the job market and empathy with the not-so wealthy, it left millions of potential voters with nowhere else to turn to.

The general perception (though by no means exclusive to Labour) is that the party is now the monopoly of a specific breed of professional politicians: bureauspeaking middle-class policy wonks whose only route to Westminster is a self-perpetuating career in research, think tanks and policy units.

It was telling that, in the run-up to May 6, Gordon Brown and his inner circle would constantly cling on to Labour's few progressive achievements (i.e. the minimum wage, SureStart, LGBT rights, tax credit) in a last-ditch attempt to garner enough support.

Someone should tell Ed Balls and David Miliband. If the New Labour project wasn't, after all, so bad...why didn't they centre their election pitch around their least Labour achievements? Why didn't they walk around replaying slogans like "we're-intensly-relaxed-towards-the-filthy-rich" or "we-need-more-millionaires"? Why didn't they remind voters of the beauty of 42-day detention, top-up fees, the Iraq war, peerages for bankers, PFI, City deregulation and the third runway at Heathrow?

Which is why a clear break from New Labour is the only hope for the party. And it can only come from two out of the five candidates.

One is Diane Abbott, a maverick MP with a good media profile who speaks like an intelligible, normal human being. Placed against the Cleggeron white male upper-class clones, she would certainly stand out as a more ordinary person.

But Abbott's strongest points are not just presentational.

People appreciate politicians who speak their mind. And Diane Abbott has never been afraid to speak against people in power, even if they belonged to the same party. She was never part of any New Labour government; she opposed the Iraq War even when it wasn't the fashionable option; she has an excellent record on civil liberties and, unlike manipulative Ed Balls, she has stated clearly that concerns about immigration were often "a proxy" for concerns about jobs, housing and poor pay.

The second is Ed Miliband.

When he first threw his hat into the ring, this blog dismissed him as yet another New Labour clone or the prototypical continuity candidate.

We were wrong. Credit when due, Ed Miliband is showing he's got the guts to make a clear break from Blair and Brown, acknowledging past mistakes as well as fighting his campaign on a range of policies that speak, factually, to ordinary people.

Unlike his brother, he fully admitted that the Iraq war was a mistake.

Unlike Ed Balls, he's refusing to use immigration and ethnicity as a convenient political scapegoat to dodge Labour's responsibility in issues such as labour casualisation, agency work and housing.

Above all, unlike his more senior rivals, Ed Miliband finally twigged that there are millions of people who are gagging for a party representing the interest of the low-paid and the most vulnerable. With pride - without triangulations, politicking and opportunism.

Aside from making the pitch in favour of a wage ratio between top and bottom salary in the workplace, Ed Miliband has made the fight for a Living Wage the centrepiece of his leadership campaign, making the most progressive statement coming from a mainstream Labour politician since the days of the minimum wage. On Wednesday, in an article penned for the Mirror, he wrote:
"Our party is worth nothing if it is not true to our values. Our values define who we are and who we stand up for. Our values led us to victory in 1997 - when we promised a minimum wage, smaller class sizes, and a windfall tax to help the young find work.

There is something wrong with a society where nurses earn less in a year than bankers - whose botched deals caused the credit crunch - pay themselves every week. It would take a low paid worker at a top company 80 years to earn what their boss makes in a single year in the boardroom.

The gap between rich and poor matters morally because it touches our deepest sense of justice. It matters because across the world, more unequal societies have higher crime rates, more mental illness and more social problems. And it matters for our economy. The credit crunch shows what happens when it is too easy for bankers to earn a fast buck from deals that go rotten just after they have pocketed their cash. So we need to act".
For the Labour Party, it's the last chance to do so.


socialist sam said...

Yeah but you're sidestepping Diane Abbott's weaknesses. People hurriedly categorised her along with John McDonnell, whereas she is a populist with little political belief.

McDonnell would have been the best option.

Chris Baldwin said...

We hear a lot of people talking about getting back to the values that brought us victory in 1997, but really I think we need to acknowledge that we'd already gone too far to the right by then. I'm not advocating some Bennite programme, but ultimately, New Labour was an error.