Chuka Umunna MP argues that Times leader writer Phil Collins is wrong to accuse Ed Miliband of vacating the centre ground. It misunderstands the history of the last 20 years.
Our guest writer is Chuka Umunna, Labour Member of Parliament for Streatham
A leading Labour politician describes his party as “radical” and talks of “retrieving what the Labour Party is really about” and, sure as night follows day, they will be accused of talking to the membership, retreating from the centre ground and entering Labour’s comfort zone. That was very much Phil Collins’ take two weeks ago in The Times on the utterances of Ed Miliband during this summer’s Labour leadership contest.
Increasingly this strikes me as a rather bizarre proposition in the post Blair era for a number of reasons.
First, it suggests Tony Blair failed, to any noticeable degree, to remould the party in his own image from 1994 until 2007. Of course, most of the extreme left of the party had well and truly departed once New Labour entered its second term of government – those of us who are still proud members of the party after 13 years of government are not crying out for a return to the spirit of Labour’s 1983 “suicide note” manifesto as Collins and others suggest (one wonders when Collins last went to a local party meeting). My experience is that the Labour mainstream now is neither of the ancient “Militant” variety nor the old ultra Blairite type – most members of my local party sit comfortably in the sensible middle.
Second, the beauty of our victory in 1997 was our success in putting forward a radical policy agenda that pulled together a coalition of working and middle Britain (the super rich upper classes, in the main, remained resolutely Tory throughout our time in power despite New Labour’s pandering to them). To suggest a radical agenda cannot appeal to these two parts of the coalition ignores our historic achievements. It also conveniently forgets that where new Labour got it wrong, both middle and working Britain (and indeed the party membership) were united in their opposition to what our leadership was doing – Iraq, top up fees and the abolition of the 10p tax band are just a few examples.
Third, it is all rather unambitious. Our task is surely to reframe the centre ground of British politics rather than to adopt the right’s definition of it. The Collins tendency subscribe to a view of the British public which says it is conservative with a small “c” and cannot be persuaded of a centre left, social democratic programme. They also wrongly suggest such a programme exclusively involves tax and spend and not much else. Imagine we had not introduced a national minimum wage or a windfall tax on the privatised utilities to pay for the New Deal back in 1997 – were today’s leadership contenders to put foward such policies, no doubt these same siren voices would accuse them of playing to the core vote.
Ed Miliband understands this which is why I am backing his bid to become the next Labour leader. He demonstrates his understanding by putting the introduction of a living wage at the heart of his campaign, by strongly backing a High Pay Commission that looks at both public and private sector pay and he is committed to a more progressive transparent taxation system to name but a few policies. All of the aforementioned have broad appeal to all but the super rich who would stand to lose some of their privileges.
Ed also has an ability to restore the party’s self-confidence after its worst defeat in decades and inspire the public. Above all, he – like the leading Labour politician cited above – has the ability to reconvene the coalition that sustained Labour in power from 1997. Ironically that leading Labour politician, speaking in 1995, was a certain Tony Charles Lynton Blair; he was radical once but his time and Blarism’s sell by date has passed. Now we need a new leader with a different formula.Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today.