Labour’s Fraternal Struggle

Labour’s Fraternal Struggle

No candidate for Labour Party leader has offered a challenge to the dominant view of Britain as a society living beyond its means, with the market setting the terms for what’s possible.


It was billed as the fight that would determine the future of the British left, a struggle for the soul of the Labour Party. Hammered in the polls in May, Labour announced a four-month campaign to decide on Gordon Brown’s successor. The idea was to allow time not just for a change of leader but for a wide-ranging debate on the party’s core beliefs, direction and long-term goals. With dozens of hustings around the country, candidates would have a chance to express their vision for Labour and for Britain beyond the economic crisis, reverse the decline of a party that hemorrhaged nearly two-thirds of its membership in government and rebuild the dream of a progressive majority.

Instead, the campaign has been an illustration of the narcissism of small differences, as four white men in their 40s—all Oxbridge-educated career politicians, all former government ministers—have struggled to distinguish themselves from one another, with one black woman (also a career politician and a Cambridge graduate) playing the rebel’s role. After thirteen years in office, it is almost impossible to talk about the party’s future without rehashing the past—yet it is vital to avoid suicidal recriminations. New Labour’s ghost is always present at the feast; all the candidates agree that it must be exorcised. But the deeper argument about what that might mean—a return to socialist roots, a continued embrace of poll-led policies and market-led reforms, or some as yet unarticulated solution—has been all but sublimated into a contest between two men whose views might look quite similar even if they didn’t happen to be brothers.

The ballots that went out to Labour Party members in September list five names: Diane Abbott (the first black woman elected to Parliament, and an outspoken opponent of Blairism and the Iraq War but with little support from Labour branches outside London), Ed Balls (former chief adviser to the treasury, education minister and Gordon Brown’s closest lieutenant), Andy Burnham (former minister for culture, media and sport and the only candidate with roots in the white working class) and the Miliband brothers. The sons of Marxist economist Ralph Miliband both came of age inside New Labour—David (the elder) as head of Tony Blair’s policy unit, Ed as a key adviser to Gordon Brown—and for much of their careers they have lived and worked literally next door to each other. Both were elected to Parliament from safe Labour seats and quickly promoted to cabinet. David was Blair’s environment secretary; Ed headed Brown’s new department of energy and climate change. David, nicknamed "Brains" for his intellectual prowess and geeky demeanor, rose to become Brown’s foreign secretary and chief potential rival; Ed, a more affable figure, stayed in his brother’s shadow even as Blair’s opponents began to adopt him as their champion, sporting buttons that read My Favourite Miliband Is Ed. Until, that is, he joined the leadership race.

This was never going to be an equal contest. Burnham and Abbott struggled to gain enough nominations from fellow MPs to qualify, with Abbott succeeding only when David Miliband urged his supporters to back her candidacy. (The party leader is chosen by a three-part electorate, with an equal say going to MPs, Labour members and members of "affiliated organizations," mostly trade unions.) And though Balls has been most effective in opposing the Conservative–Liberal Democrat coalition government, particularly on the folly of imposing cuts in a recession, his candidacy, like Burnham’s, was rendered toxic to many activists by his eagerness to raise the issue of immigration after May’s election disaster. But any candidate would have had a tough time gaining a hearing from a press corps in thrall to the prospect of fraternal strife. We’ve seen story after story in which David, the cerebral "heir to Blair," says that "brotherly love is more important than politics," while Ed, once seen as the shy, less polished Brownite, replies that "David is my best friend in all the world." The latest polls show Ed, who started out a distant third behind front-runner David and Balls, now snapping at his brother’s heels.

The winner will be announced September 25 at the start of the Labour Party conference, and perhaps then we can begin to debate the choices facing not just the party but the country. As the Lib-Con coalition consolidates its grip on power, Prime Minister David Cameron’s "progressive conservatism" and his deputy Nick Clegg’s promise of a "progressive alliance" have given way to the reality of Chancellor George Osborne’s austerity budget, with cuts of up to 40 percent in some departments—deeper even than Thatcher’s—shredding the safety net. With police leaders warning of unrest to come, a further £4 billion is to be taken from benefits to the unemployed, whom Osborne has accused of treating welfare as a "lifestyle choice."

Of course, all five Labour candidates are against the cuts, putting forth their ideas on how to raise revenues without unfairly burdening those least able to pay, from David Miliband’s proposal of a "mansion tax" on houses worth more than £2 million to Ed’s suggested "graduate tax," proportionate to earnings, to replace college tuition fees. But for all the talk of "Labour values" and "community," no candidate has offered a convincing narrative to challenge the dominant view of Britain as a society living beyond its means, with the markets setting the terms for what is possible. Opposition to the cuts has fallen largely to the trade unions, whose motives are all too easily attacked by Britain’s right-wing press. Yet the unions, too, seem mired in the past; a strategy based on slogans from the 1980s with the name "Osborne" substituted for "Thatcher" is no more likely to work now than it was then. Those leftists confidently prophesying that the coalition won’t last should remember how unlikely a leader Lady Thatcher seemed at first—and that Labour spent the next eighteen years in opposition.

There are certainly differences between the Milibands. David is more defensive of the New Labour record, more anxious about ditching a once-winning formula; Ed seems more committed to change, to reversing inequality, to connecting with the grassroots. We’ve liked Ed, a former Nation intern, ever since we met him twenty years ago at the late Nation writer Andrew Kopkind’s kitchen table. Ed’s recent remark that "we’ve got to stop treating the trade unions like embarrassing relatives who’ve got to be locked in the attic" is a good partial sketch of where New Labour went wrong; and his call, as a government minister, for a climate-change movement to make leaders act showed not just understanding of but enthusiasm for a politics that doesn’t stop at Parliament’s door. But David’s embrace of the Alinsky-style London Citizens campaign, and his commitment to train 1,000 community organizers during the leadership race, show that big brother is no mere apparatchik. Style matters in politics, which is why Ed’s supporters wave placards proclaiming Ed Speaks Human. But experience matters too, and though David is tainted by his Blairite past, his support for the Iraq War and his role as foreign secretary in covering up Britain’s involvement in torture, he also has the stature, and the credibility, that make him a more feared opponent for the coalition. Whichever brother wins will need all the skills of the other to reconnect with and reclaim Britain’s left-of-center majority, shut out by the ruling coalition. Labour is absorbed in choosing a new head; the more vital task will be to repair its broken body.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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