Oh brother! Miliband leads Labour

The British Labour Party has a new leader. Since Gordon Brown’s resignation and the party’s election defeat in May, the main tussle for the leadership has been between the two Miliband brothers. It was announced on Saturday that Ed, the younger of the two, had defeated David to take the crown. It remains to be seen in which direction Ed Miliband will now steer the party.

To date, all three main parties have been advocating huge cuts to public services in order to reduce the national debt brought about by the crisis in the banking sector and the subsequent massive bail out. The only difference is that Labour has been arguing for a slower pace of cuts to try to avoid a double dip recession.

The UK will shortly get to know the extent of the cuts. Job losses and slashes to services will follow. As leader of the main opposition party, just how far Ed Miliband will be prepared to go in standing up for millions of ordinary people who will bear the cost remains to be seen.

Power without substance

Under Tony Blair, Labour won three straight elections. However, critics say that gaining electoral office by ditching the party’s core left wing values merely served to produce power without real substance and no radical improvement to the lives of ordinary working class people — Labour’s traditional core supporters. Arguably, this was the ultimate reason for the election defeat, with such people having finally abandoned the party.
For some time now, all three mainstream parties have been pro-privatisation, pro-big business and anti-trade union. Some Labour supporters hope the party will now move towards establishing clear ground between itself and the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government. They are hoping that, under Ed Miliband, Labour can rediscover its commitment to social equity and justice and show greater enthusiasm for tackling the causes and impact of social inequality, which widened during the party’s 13 years in government.

More radical voices are beginning to emerge within the labour movement that advocate an alternative to the cross party consensus that cuts are necessary. The national debt is in fact smaller than in 1945 when huge amounts of public money were used to create the welfare state. There are thus concerns that the ‘cuts are necessary’ mantra is being used by the government as a device to drive through an ideologically driven agenda for the privatisation and dismantling of huge swathes of the public sector and the welfare state.
Instead of slashing public spending, certain trade union leaders and activists are calling for, among other things, firmer taxation policies for the rich and the nationalisation or renationalisation of the massively profitable energy, rail, banking and insurance industries. But, with Ed Miliband at the helm, it is almost certain that Labour will not revert to a socialist agenda it ditched years ago.

Exactly how much support Ed Miliband offers to those who bear the brunt of the cuts will be crucial, however. Too much support and he risks alienating middle class voters and the right wing media; too little and he risks alienating further traditional working class voters.

Under New Labour, the party’s raison d’etre was to acquire and hold on to power. After 18 years in opposition, this had become its core value, seemingly void of genuine commitment to a wider political philosophy that embraced serious social change. When faced with the ubiquitous shadow cast by powerful big business and a forceful right wing media, Labour reinvented itself as New Labour by deciding to ‘play the game’ and rid itself of most of its left leaning policies. In doing so, some argue that it became a rather vacuous but very successful election winning machine.

As someone associated with the previous New Labour government, Ed Miliband may well continue to support the prevailing cross-party consensus on cuts and not mount any significant defence of jobs and services. If so, he could find himself between a rock and a hard place. His leadership campaign had good support from the trade unions. They may expect payback when the cuts begin to bite.

Ed Miliband is more of a technocrat than radical, more middle manager than firebrand. In an era of advanced capitalism, the role of mainstream political leaders is to demonstrate competence when it comes to managing the machinery of state in order to fine tune the status quo, not overhaul it. A role worth having? As potential future PM, Ed Miliband might certainly say so. Those who want Labour to be a genuine party of the left would disagree. Labour’s new leader could be in for a very bumpy ride.

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