Poor Ed is stuck between two marauding elephants

by Kevin Meagher

There’s an old African saying that when the elephants fight, it’s the grass that suffers. If that’s the case, these past couple of weeks have left Labour’s lawn fit for a spot of crown green bowling.

First to start a ruck by waving his proboscis about was Labour’s emeritus leader Tony Blair, chiding via the pages of the New Statesman, that Labour risks settling back “into its old territory of defending the status quo” and blowing the next election.

A couple of weeks of tit-for-tat followed before Len McLuskey, tusks a-gleaming, charged headlong at Tony’s hindquarters also telling the New Statesman this week that if Ed Miliband listens to Blairites in the party he is consigning himself to the “dustbin of history”.

Both hulking mammals have the same motivation; to bruise but not wound Ed Miliband and make it clear their respective herds are not to be taken for granted as we pass the 60% marker for this parliament. They are both concerned about the shape of Labour’s offer to the voters in 2015. McLuskey denounces any prospect of offering “austerity-lite”, claiming it will lead to certain election defeat. Blair, in stark contrast, warns that to “tack left on tax and spending” will lead to “strategic defeat”.

Yes, Labour’s got to be pragmatic in how it approaches the next election (Blair) but it’s got to win for a purpose too (McLuskey). This is the age-old conundrum for the democratic left. It’s one that pits those with a simplistic (and now outdated) assumption that the party can offer the bare minimum to core Labour voters because they have nowhere else to go, with those who are reluctant to countenance the bloody business of compromise at all. Despite the dust that has been kicked up these past couple of weeks, both sides are sketchy about details.

On spending, McLuskey urges Miliband to “create a radical alternative” to austerity in order to remain “the authentic voice of ordinary working people”. Does this mean no cuts? Some cuts? Cuts to bits of public spending we don’t like? (The trouble is that a private sector union like Unite has many members in defence industries and won’t want to see cuts here which other unions might happily countenance).

Things are no clearer on the other side of the aisle. When Tony Blair says in his New Statesman piece that Labour needs to be “seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger” he doesn’t set out a single practical idea about how Labour meets the political or economic challenges around spending, either in specifics or even what approach the party should take.

Coming up on the rails, as Atul Hatwal pointed out the other day, is the decision about whether Labour backs the government’s overall package following the spending review in June and then, perhaps, forces the pace on differing priorities. This requires clarity about Labour’s red line issues and what are henceforth merely nice-to-haves. We are light years away from seeing that kind of discussion start, never mind conclude.

Should we, for example, still have means-tested benefits for pensioners? Is Trident is a costly distraction? Does the public sector wage bill needs pruning? Should the balance between cuts and tax rises now tilt towards the latter? Should we lop-off areas of spending altogether rather than continue to salami-slice? Et cetera, et cetera.

These are the kind of hard choices Eds Miliband and Balls face – and they are considerably more difficult than they were in the glory days of 1997. Then, holding to Tory spending plans for two years was merely a temporary expedient before the Treasury’s taps were turned on. Pledging not to increase the basic and top rates of tax was a PR ruse to cover for the welter of stealth taxes which followed. Tony Blair’s governments were conventionally social democratic in this respect. He redistributed wealth (moderately) and spent (lots) on public services. He couldn’t manage the same restraint he now seems to urge on others.

The party’s scales are balanced here. For the left, the challenge, as ever, is accepting uncomfortable political reality, while the Blairite right needs to understand that Labour is a social democratic party which needs a strong, compelling offer to ordinary working people.

People feel more insecure, overburdened, more insular, angry that they are struggling to get by through, they see it, no fault of theirs. They are volatile and raw.  It’s a mood which might harden into more radical demands (as McLuskey thinks). Or it might go the other way and manifest itself as rampant individualism (Blair’s theory). Frankly, we don’t know yet, which means the 2015 centre ground is currently wheeling around on castors.

Rather than flattening the grass any further, what would be helpful for Miliband is for all sides to offer a better reconciliation between how Labour wins the next election with what it does after. This is essential as there is no point fudging issues, winning an election and then seeing the party rip itself apart with cries of betrayal later on. In this respect, both Blair and McLuskey’s advice is pretty useless.

Still, you wouldn’t want to say that too loudly to two marauding elephants, would you?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut


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14 Responses to “Poor Ed is stuck between two marauding elephants”

  1. swatantra says:

    Lets take a lesson from Aesop; elephants are supposed to be frightened by mice.
    So these two marauding elephants neede to be moderated by a third factor, that means intoducing the 3rd Way, neither a lurch to the suicidal Right or Left, but going down the Golden Mean. Lets see a bit of Consensus here, now, before the eve of the GE in 2015.

  2. When old elephants in politics start blathering on, it is usually no more than ego. Were I Ed, I’d ignore it. Listen to the folk who vote for UKIP and you’ll get a better idea of how the country feels than listening to these two old egoists

  3. aragon says:

    Given George Galloway’s incisive analysis of Ed Milliband we need not expect or fear anything radical from the Labour party. And with Ed Balls running the economics there is no danger of any change there.

    The right are the one’s that have a problem with political reality but having two Tory parties. suits some people, but no danger of change under the do nothing leadership.

    Just the wind in the grass is enough to paralyses the current leadership.

    They don’t understand a radical left position and would not pursue a radical policy if it bit them.

    Ed Milliband even softens the ‘Living Wage’ to ‘Minimum Wage’ to the point of meaningless and renationalisation (progressively at zero cost) the railways is a policy too far.

    There is no point in suggesting anything radical, with a weak and ineffective leadership pair.

    They are frightened of their own shadows. And don’t understand the radical possibilities.

  4. Ex-labour says:

    A thoughtful article and I’m sure one which will still divide opinion.

    The question for me is do Labour really represent the “ordinary working people” as you put it ? The language from Miliband acknowledges that Labour got it wrong on immigration as an example, which distorted the labour markets particularly for the lower paid. Yet when asked about plans on immigration we got some waffle about immigrants rights and ensuring employers don’t victimise immigrants. This made even my staunch Labour friends baulk.

    We then have welfare benefits. Does he stick or twist ? Not really sure based on what he said so far.

    The problem for the left is that to fund their spending requirements ” ordinary working people” will have to provide funding via taxation and bearing in mind Miliband is already on the wrong side of public opinion on both of the above issues how would that affect the Labour vote? Balls mantra is usually to tax the rich but bearing in mind the rich contribute 28 percent of the income tax revenue and we are told they and their assets are mobile what happens to the spending on NHS, education etc if they move in numbers? We have seen also that a 50 percent rate substantially decreases the tax take according to the treasury figures.

    As you point out when looking at Blairs record it is not really “right wing” at all as he taxed and spent much, many would argue too much !

    My interpretation of Blairs comments and others of a similar mind is that Labour risk alienating the voters if they go down a path which has proved a failure previously rendering Labour unelectable. However hard the choices maybe, representing everyone from the low paid to the wealthy and finding a balance for all is the key.

    David Hume the philosopher talked about the induction of logic and drawing general conclusions from specific observations. My fear if Miliband and his cohorts use only welfare claimants and the lower paid as a basis for policy then they will miss the majority public opinion and potential votes. Or to be harsh as one political journalist put it they will be seen as the party of the “slob on the sofa”.

  5. e says:

    Listing to EM on World at One today was heartening. He determinedly undermined TINA thereby offering a glint of hope. He was stopped short of spelling out the bigger picture, but the fact that the discussion lacked this perspective was nonetheless clear. The challenges aren’t “political or economic” they go deeper being of the political-economy. As for the mood of voters, will it harden or become rampant? Well I sincerely hope there are plans afoot to lead rather than wait, see and follow….. Being confined currently to, “slob on the sofa” status, I don’t much fancy a “whatever” approach.

  6. bob says:

    e – you must have listened to a different interview from me as I almost crashed the car laughing at his inane ramblings. Even Martha Carney a member of the BBC socialist sett could hardly resist giving him a verbal kicking, imagine him up against Paxman or Neil, he’d never stand a chance. The man is an idiot, no experience of life, representing one of the inept and reputedly corrupt council areas in the UK.

    Keep him there though, as he is the present governments chance of being re-elected.

  7. Robert says:

    Good article about the dilemmas of the democratic left. My answers to the questions are:

    Move away from means tested benefits and keep universal benefits for pensioners.

    Scrap Trident.

    Retain pay restraint for the public sector except for the low paid.

    More emphasis on tax rises to cut the deficit.

    Put forward a a plan to reduce the deficit that is more gradual than the Con-Dem’s spending review.

    Limit all public spending rather than cutting specific programmes.

    Overall, the result should be growth of 1-2% a year, gradually reducing the deficit and preserving the public services.

  8. LesAbbey says:

    Let’s look at a very crude measurement of how well a social democrat government, or even a non-social democrat government in a period of social democrat consensus, works. (Still with me boys and girls?)

    The measurement is the Gini Coefficient of income equality after tax. The smaller the number the closer the top and bottom levels of personal incomes become. From the end of WW2 to the mid 1970s the gap was closing. From Thatcher onwards including through the Blair years it widened. So let’s ask Miliband and Balls to guarantee that a future Labour government, having dropped the ‘New’ will change the direction of the Gini Coefficient with whatever policies are needed.

  9. Robert the crip says:

    All the people I know who were labour are of course saying UKIP… that could well be the mouse that scares the elephant, not the BNP it was never the BNP but UKIP is a great protest vote.

    In my area of course I will be voting for my Welsh Assembly but would no longer bother with the national….

  10. Ex-labour says:

    @LesAbbey

    Something that has always puzzled me. Why does the left always try to make comparisons in salaries as some kind of economic measure? Are you suggesting that an office cleaner should be paid the same as the CEO of the company? Or there should be some set differential between the lowest and highest?

    We are in a global economy where people can move around without any issues. Whilst I agree that some of the top earners get great deals that’s perhaps more to do with their knowledge, skills, qualifications and experience and demand within the market.

    My objection to large salaries comes in the public sector such as the BBC where people with non-jobs are paid a fortune.

  11. John Reid says:

    Ex labour would. You have back to labour if Andy B ,or David M had won the leadership and admitted that Lapbur spent far too much in the years 2005-2008

  12. LesAbbey says:

    @ex-labour

    Why does the left always try to make comparisons in salaries as some kind of economic measure?

    Funny enough it’s not such a left thing. I would say it was mainstream Labour thought at one time. So let’s ask why should a social democrat look for more equal society, and more equal doesn’t mean total equality in my understanding of the English language?

    It’s probably because of those studies which show more equal societies are happier societies. It’s probably because part of this ‘happier’ society is less crime and social problems. Sure there are extremes in both directions. You obviously have a fear that the cleaner will get paid the same as the manager. The other extreme is of course that poor people die in the streets. Funny thing is I have never seen the former, but I’ve certainly seen the latter, and not only in third world countries.

    So the other argument – the brain drain that more equal societies would suffer. Well I suspect it’s a bit of a myth. Sweden should have lost all its engineers in the 60s and 70s, but it didn’t happen. My own little skill drain in 1973 wasn’t down to government policies on equality, it was due to the excitement of travelling.

  13. Ex-labour says:

    @LesAbbey

    The question is for social democrats is how equal “more equal” should be ? As I said is there a set differential or some kind of multiplier that should be applied to salaries? If someone has earned their wealth why should someone else have the right to take a large percentage of that wealth or income and “redistribute” it to someone who has done nothing to earn it?

    Don’t get me wrong I’m all for paying tax and making a contribution, but ultimately we all are provided with the same services eg NHS, education etc. so why should someone have to contribute more because they earn more? The Benefit Principle doesn’t really apply I don’t think but of course there is the Ability to Pay Principle. My own opinion, for what it’s worth is that Labour and the left in general get the balance wrong.

    Or like one left wing blogger who favours progressive taxation said of the high earners “they don’t deserve it” which formed the basis of his equality argument. That’s probably more about the politics of envy.

  14. LesAbbey says:

    @ Ex-labour

    You seem to be skirting around what you believe in. You hint that the poor haven’t earned it and that tax contributions should reflect the the usage the payee gets out of the system. Are you a flat tax believer like pre-2013 UKIP?

    It’s no good arguing about the balance being wrong if you don’t believe in redistribution at all. Your position is already at an extreme end of the argument. I think most people can see the problem in the present day economic consensus when they look at obscene banking and City of London bonuses. It’s there when the look at corporate CEO remuneration. It’s probably there even with footballers’ wages. I suspect the view is also there with the proliferation of food banks.

    The balance is way off right now and it needs to be bought back quite a bit and that Gini coefficient is a good measurement of success or failure no matter what your views. For instance the difference between the 1970s measurement and today’s would be good news if you believe that less equality is better, which you obviously do. For those that believe the opposite, which by its definition includes social democrats, the numbers make poor reading. A failure of the Blair/Brown governments is that the trend wasn’t changed from that Thatcher and Major left behind.

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