Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference earlier this week raised a few eyebrows, signalling as it did a new-ish direction of travel for the party. While Miliband spent the rest of the week trying to persuade everyone that his speech did not represent a shift to the left, it was obvious to most that it represented an attempt to move away from the New Labour orthodoxy that has dominated the party for the last decade and a half.
The Guardian described Miliband’s conversion as one to “ethical socialism,” something which – for obvious reasons – I’m quite happy with, but there remains a lot to be done before we can claim, in the words of Neil Kinnock, that we’ve “got our party back.”
Welfare reform remains one major issue, with Labour’s perceived failure to defend those suffering from benefit cuts still looming large. Miliband was confronted over this by disability activists at his “Q&A” session; his answers were unconvincing, though happily he agreed to discuss their concerns with them in more detail.
On the other few issues where concrete (though non-binding) policy suggestions have been made, such as on tuition fees and press reform, the proposals seem half-hearted, almost deliberately trying to please everybody and therefore pleasing no one. Labour’s strategy is obviously to try and regain economic credibility, and while this has to be an important strand of our approach going forward, it cannot be the only strand.
There are a number of conflicting views over the direction the Labour Party should take in the future. The debate so far has been dominated by one voice – that of Progress, whose Purple Book has recently been published, containing a largely Blairite vision for the future of the party. The Blairite thesis is that elections are won by attracting swing voters, and to do that Labour needs to adopt “radical” centrist policies that will appeal to suburban middle England above all else.
It is ironic that, having been so keen to dispense with the history and traditions of the labour movement when they rose to the top of the Labour Party, Blairites have failed to acknowledge that they themselves are now part of that history. The four million votes Labour lost between 1997 and 2005 – compared to just a million lost between 2005 and 2010 – are strong evidence that what worked for the party in 1997 is unlikely to do so again.
Other strands of thought in Labour are the so-called “blue” and “red” camps, both of whom recognise that in chasing “swing” voters, what Labour did – what it was bound to do – was alienate its core voters. Blue Labour, which started out as a formal project but was abruptly killed off after its founding father Maurice Glasman made some ill-advised remarks on immigration, propose economically left-wing and socially conservative policies to win over the white working classes, traditionally Labour voters who have recently turned to far-right parties or – more commonly – stopped voting at all.
As Owen Jones points out in his book Chavs, the problem with targeting policies towards the “white working classes” is that, by defining voters according to their race rather than their class, we miss the point of what we are trying to achieve. Only a class-based approach can correctly define the problems our core vote face, and assign appropriate solutions.
As an opposition party and as a socialist party, Labour should be standing up for those worst affected by the actions of the Tory-led government, which are overwhelmingly the working class. This is the approach Red Labour should be taking – to speak in the language of class, to highlight the destruction being wreaked on that level of society by a government that neither understands nor cares about its impact on them.
Since the New Labour era, Labour has been afraid to speak in such terms. For one thing, as Jones spells out throughout his book, working class pride has been persistently eroded over the decades, so that the “right” thing for working class people is to be “aspirational,” which means to want to lift themselves out of the working class. Labour must work – and work hard – to restore this pride, and to provide a meaningful sense of what it means to be working class.
For another, Labour are terrified of being accused by the Tories and the right-wing media of “waging class warfare” if they dare to speak or act in such terms. But for those accusations, I say this: We have a government led by a Cabinet of millionaires, who are cutting the public services disproportionately relied on by those of lower incomes. They preside over an economy where the costs of living rocket and wages stagnate, and yet they want to make it more difficult for workers to stand up for their rights. They blame the unemployed for being out of work, and treat the sick and disabled as if they are responsible for their own illness. They punish ordinary people with VAT hikes, while simultaneously treating their rich friends to corporation tax giveaways.
And they want to talk about class warfare? I say, bring it on.