The Wrong Milliband

Posted: September 26, 2010 in Current affairs

So Labour’s elected Ed Milliband as leader….just about.  Cue media questions about legitimacy and authority. Ed just scraped in ahead of David on the back of trade union second preferences. Even worse, he trailed David on both the parliamentary and constituency party vote. This will make it difficult for him to lead from the front in opposition to the coming cuts because the unions, his effective patrons now, are planning a much more radical campaign than envisaged by the party. Can he oppose with any credibility widespread strikes in the public sector? In the very same breath, the media also point out that Ed won the union vote on a very low turn-out! Whichever way they look at it, Ed’s just the Wrong Milliband.

"Take me to your leader!" Will David stick around?


Now, note the framing of these questions. It’s very typical of the mainstream media in general and is based on three underlying assumptions:  first, that cuts to the public sector is the only alternative; second, that the only legitimate opposition to those cuts is through parliamentary debate; and, three, that trade unions are subversive organisations whose planned campaign of opposition to the cuts will drag Britain back to the “winter of discontent” (1978-79) – widespread strikes in essential public services and general chaos. 

Yet, as I’ve argued already in previous posts, there is an alternative to the cuts and it’s through the kind of taxation measures proposed by Greg Philo and others. Up until Vince Cable’s speech at the Lib Dem conference last week, it was barely considered. But I suspect the Tories had to cut Cable some slack, so to speak, and allow him to soothe anxiety among the liberal wing of his party; concern that Lib Dem ministers are being too acquiescent with the Tory cuts agenda. It was all smoke and mirrors, though, and as far as Cameron would ever allow him to go. Going after wealthy tax dodgers and their offshore accounts sounds tough but will make very little impact on deficit reduction. It’s just spin and Cable knows it.

The assumption that opposition to the cuts should only be mounted in parliament is also wrong. It’s not that MPs don’t have an important role to play. They do – but not on their own. And this leads me to the third assumption: that the unions’ planned campaign will bring Britain’s public sector and its essential services to a halt and make it even more difficult to reduce the national debt. This an interesting proposition for its sheer hypocrisy. The government proposes savage cuts to the public sector that will reduce essential services, leave the poorest and most vulnerable in society worse off than before and threaten economic recovery by reducing demand and the tax take. Yet it attacks the unions for planning a campaign that it says will have the same effects!

So where does all this leave Ed Milliband?  With very little room for manoeuvre, I’d say. If he lends explicit support to the union campaign, he will be pilloried by the government, by a good section of his own party and by the media. If he swallows a dose of New Labour pragmatism and buys into the current deficit reduction agenda – we accept the need for cuts but not so fast or so drastic – then he will be seen as expedient or weak or both. Again, he will be the Wrong Milliband.

Ed’s only hope is that the cuts, when they come, will change everything. I can’t help thinking that people in general simply don’t realise how this still  very abstract prospect of cuts will actually affect them. If the cuts are as savage as I fear, then voters might just look to their MPs and ask serious questions. Those in work might just realise after decades of anti-union propaganda that their only protection lies in their union. Or if they work for an employer that bans union membership, they might just take matters into their own hands. In that context, Ed Milliband’s very slim union mandate might not look like such a liability.

  1. Dr. Disco says:

    AA, all is not lost. Seems there’s a jobshare in it. All the rage these days, so I hear.

    Dr. D x

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