Sunday, 10 October 2010

Why Ed Should Stay Red

It didn't take long for the knives to come out for the new (note the significant small 'n') Labour leader Ed Miliband (or MiliE, as some of the less kind Conservative press have dubbed him.)

Within hours of his appointment, he had acquired several nicknames, with perhaps 'Red Ed' being the most insidious. The suggestion was made in several of the more militant Conservative newspapers that Ed was 'in the pocket of the unions'. Well, it was certainly their votes that put him in charge and consigned his brother to the political scrapheap.

It seems like every time that unions are mentioned in the mainstream press, we harp back to the winter of discontent, rubbish uncollected in the streets, miners being mercilessly crushed by Margaret Thatcher. Never mind that the reality - an odd hour or two's delay on the London Underground or at an airport in the name of safety and entirely deserved wage equality - is very different in the modern era.

And yet, it was Ed himself who was quick to distance himself from those who had pushed him over the line. He was, he said, very much his own man - the cannier amongst us might well see this as an attempt to distance himself from the Blairite days of Brown and Mandelson as much as an association with blood-red socialism. Then, days later, Ed admitted that he wasn't against cuts on principle, just the speed with which they were being proposed. The unionites who voted for him must have been spluttering into their morning tea.

Why then, have we absorbed the idea that red is bad? After all, we are not America, with its dyed-in-the-wool fear that socialism will destroy the 'free' part of the free market. Socialism remains one of our country's proud traditions, it being representative of the staunch backbone of England, the van-driving, street-sweeping, hospital-cleaning working classes. Union membership in this country numbers in the millions and militancy is at its highest level for years.

Their efforts are having an impact too. Chris Huhne, a liberal minister and economist yesterday admitted that planned public sector cuts may be 'scaled back'. This is political speak that the coalition have used a few times in the past week, and smacks of there being more public opposition to their plans than they expected.

William Dove in the International Business Times makes the point that Labour being affiliated to the unions invites the same derision that it would if the Conservative Party were to affiliate itself with private businesses. Certainly the Byzantine, undemocratic methods that the Labour Party uses to pick a leader should be revised - the current system sees individuals with multiple memberships of affiliated organisations getting multiple votes, and that does indeed call the outcomes into question.

Still, I feel that Dove misses the point somewhat. The Conservative Party was not born of big business in the same way that the Labour Party was girded from the loins of the labour movement. The Tories are more than capable of looking out for their own interests, while the Labour Party was created by necessity to give a voice to those who had none. Furthermore, given the donations received from businesses and the behind-the-scenes lobbying conducted by senior business figures, it is not a large leap to imagine that big business still has direct and influential access to ministerial ears.

The real challenge for the Labour Party and its followers is the need to evolve with the people who have made it so successful in the past. New Labour pitched itself firmly in the ground between the benefit recipients who drained it so thoroughly of strength and impetus and the nouveau riche who shouted proudly that they were still working class while also doing everything in their power to ensure that little Emily and Joshua got into that nice public school on the village green. By chasing two rabbits, they effectively lost both.

Remember that without the Liberal Democrats, this government would be struggling to achieve anything by majority. Ed Miliband can afford to wait for the cuts to do their damage to public confidence, and then like a master surgeon he can take a scalpel neatly to the clear divisions within the coalition. Best of all, he doesn't have to betray his faithful followers in order to take the party back to the people - he simply has to identify with their needs and struggles while acknowledging their concerns and their hard work, and he can do all of that while still proudly waving a red flag.

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