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A victory for instability

Perhaps the most telling statistic in the Labour leadership election was the abysmal turn-out in the trade union section of the electoral college. At 9%, it was lower than during the ballot for the party’s deputy leadership held in 2007.

Despite, (or more likely as a result of), a huge effort by trade union bureaucrats to get members to vote for Ed Miliband, more than 90% who could have voted for him or one of the other four candidates chose not to. In one union, the shopworkers’ USDAW, only 4.3% voted.

That tells you something about trade unionists’ patent lack of faith in their own “leaders” and the advice they received, as well as the widespread disillusionment with Labour politics.

All the trumpeted headlines about “red Ed” are, of course, a smokescreen designed to help the Lib-Con coalition. Ed is no more “socialist” than his brother David. He sat on his hands while New Labour cosied up to the banks and corporations and wrote the party’s recent election manifesto.

Unlike his brother, however, Ed Miliband – who was politically close to Gordon Brown – realised that New Labour was discredited and needs a makeover if the electorate is to be fooled into voting for them again. He is a British version of “change you can believe in”, which became Obama’s mantra.

But because his margin of win was so thin – and with local parties giving Ed Miliband first preference in only 72 of the 635 constituencies – it’s a pyrrhic and unstable victory. This point is reinforced by the barely concealed hostility to him expressed by the party establishment who saw their way back to power through brother David.

A sophisticated operator, Ed Miliband studied at Oxford under Marxist tutor Andrew Glynn. There the comparison with his father – the notable Marxist academic Ralph – ends. The brothers consciously decided that Old Labour was a burden and took the New Labour oath. Distancing yourself from your past in a dishonest manner, as Ed Miliband has done, in order to achieve office is the worst kind of opportunism.

The support given to Ed Miliband by the leaders of the main affiliated unions – which enabled him to overtake his brother at the last gasp – was a reflection (albeit a distorted one) of rank-and-file discontent and concern about the impending massive cuts in public spending and the impact this will have on jobs, services and pensions.

At the same time, it is the explicit desire of union bureaucrats to maintain the status quo and to hold the groundswell of opposition to government within the old framework of parliamentary politics and prevent things spinning out of control.

They have hopes of making Ed Miliband their proxy. The Unite union campaigned by texting, phone banking and emailing members, an operation run by Charlie Whelan, its political officer and former fixer for Brown. Whelan persuaded six union-backed MPs to switch their second preferences from David to Ed. "I can retire now after helping deliver this for Ed," he said.

But Unite and other unions are certain to be disappointed. There is immediate and massive pressure on Ed Miliband to “disavow his own campaign”, as the Times’ leader puts it, “which set out unserious positions on banking, capitalism and the deficit in the public services”.

The new Labour leader has already said he wants to help middle England and scotched any idea that his election is a “move to the left”. Labour councils will soon be implementing coalition cuts and the party leadership will do nothing to stop this assault.

Ed Miliband’s election and the political stalemate it has created in Labour’s ranks, is a mirror of the instability and insecurity among voters as a whole that produced a cobbled-together coalition after June’s general election. As the global financial crisis worsens, there is a crisis of leadership in every section of society. How this is resolved will determine our future history.

Paul Feldman
Communications editor
27 September 2010

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