Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Miliband strikes

What a day for the androids! Miliband half comes out as a leadership challenger, then backs down under pressure from Downing Street, but then it is noticed that he wouldn't explicitly rule out a leadership challenge. On the basis of this hopeless placard, Labour's demoralised members have nothing - neither policies nor charisma nor added common sense - to hope for in a Miliband leadership. As a pronunciamento from a plotting putschist it lacks everything, including novelty. "Labour needs to change and change now" is how The Guardian summarises Miliband's intervention. In fact, the argument is that Labour must not change under any circumstances, but must defend everything it has done, and insist that the only flaw is that it didn't do it faster and better. Even the language must remain the same, the better to reinforce a stifling orthodoxy - "the many, not the few", "change" this, "radical" that, "modernisation" the other... Whoever wrote this drivel for Miliband has the mind of a small child, and he better give it back.

It was mentioned in the papers the other day that if the swing at Glasgow East were repeated in Labour's remaining heartlands (how hollow that term is beginning to seem), there would only be a dozen Labour MPs left after the next general election. The Tories have a clear plurality in every sector of the electorate, whether you stratify them by gender, region, age, or 'social class' (see poll [pdf]). From leading by 10% this time last year, Labour is now behind 19% (poll [pdf]). Recent polling evidence [pdf] suggests that the government's core policies of pay restraint in the public sector and tax breaks for corporations and the rich are deeply unpopular. Unsurprisingly, a party that assures us there is no such thing as class and then goes on to take the side of the ruling class in every key policy area or battle is making itself look a bit ridiculous and contemptible. Because of the government's commitment to privatization (what Miliband somnolently calls 'NHS reform'), New Labour is now even less trusted on the NHS than the Tories. That is a colossal reversal, and it shows that while people did support massive public investment, you can't disaggregate that investment from what is done with it. If you plough billions into colossally wasteful PFI projects, which everyone knows are wasteful and reduce the quality of care provided, you don't get brownie points. If you ram through a raft of market-driven measures and internal competition, which is the reverse of what Labour promised to do, you don't improve people's experience of the health service. Naturally, people are turning against the governing party on what was once its biggest strength. I don't think I need to keep underlining the point: New Labour is in meltdown on all fronts, and the cause of it is policy. The Miliband clarion call for 'change' actually maintains that all will be well if you only explain to the voters that New Labour was right all along, and that everything is going fabulously well.

This is not just a foolish political logic, but part of a dangerous epoch we are in. When people are suffering, stressed, in pain, they will look for solutions, not soothing bromides. And if real solutions aren't in evidence, the pseudo-solutions of the far right may gain a bigger foothold. Look at what's happened just today: British Gas put up prices by 35%. What can Gordon Brown say about this? He wouldn't dream of nationalising the energy giants. He is unlikely to even consider a tax on energy profits and a mandatory cut in fuel bills. He surely isn't going to ask us to 'stop wasting energy', is he? So, the recession is going to kick in, alongside soaring food and energy prices, and the government can only insist on belt-tightening from its constituents and obedience from its supporters. The trade unions got precious little for their supposedly militant demands in Warwick Two, and there is a reason for this: because they fundamentally accept the system that is crashing and burning, they have to accept that it needs to be rescued with wage restraint and public sector spending curbs. And they are subject to intense pressure to reinforce the government's line on 'belt-tightening' with their membership. Only a powerful, countervailing pressure from the rank and file could possibly stiffen their spines. Without working class militancy of the kind we have seen in Germany and, recently, Poland, we are going to see the politics of despair and reaction thrive.

As for Miliband, one last question: where did this idea that he is some kind of a rising star come from? I gather that the papers like him, but who else does? Is he even remotely electable? Transplanted into one of the safest Labour seats in the country, where his predecessor had a 56.8% majority (Miliband has helped chisel that down to 40.8%, and probably much lower still come 2010), has he ever really been tested? Both Blair and Brown had years of political streetfighting in them before they got to power, but Miliband has always been essentially a Blairite mini-me for as long as he has been in politics. The man is a suit-stuffer, probably set to go down as the Portillo of the 2010 election. So, again, enlighten me: who said he was a star?