If there was one undeniable cause for encouragement in the election of Ed Miliband, it was the vitriolic reaction of the Blairites. Anyone who can provoke so much fury from such bad losers must be doing something right. You might have thought Tony Benn had been elected, or a resurgent Militant had mounted a putsch, or that the party conference had resolved to storm the Winter Palace.
But the Blairites’ bile stems from a sense of betrayal – Ed was part of the New Labour establishment. That establishment splintered in the leadership election, with Ed representing a minority of it, skilfully appealing over the heads of the party machine.
Cynics (and many David Miliband supporters) say that Ed Miliband tacked to the left in a shameless bid for votes. But once in the job he could easily have tacked right again. Instead, in his first conference speech as leader he overturned New Labour’s first article of faith that markets are sacrosanct, rebuked the Blair-Brown dependence on the City, reintroduced equality as a concept, renounced the Iraq war, criticised Israel and denounced the authoritarian approach to civil liberties.
What if he really means all this?
Jon Lansman, who runs the Left Futures blog, believes he does. ‘Ed’s desire to break from New Labour is genuine,’ he says. ‘The Blairites are presenting it as a rebranding exercise but that’s not the case. Ideologically he’s a social democrat in the mainstream centre of the party.’
For the former cabinet minister Peter Hain, who is close to Ed Miliband, ‘It’s about re-founding Labour as the fulcrum of the wider progressive left. It means recognising that New Labour was far too much in thrall to private greed and marketisation.’
The state of the party
Ed Miliband’s ability to achieve this depends in part on how much room for manoeuvre he is afforded by his party. Despite winning the leadership election, the results raised some questions. The Blairites’ candidate, David Miliband, was the overwhelming winner amongst constituency party members, with 56,000 first-preference votes to Ed’s 38,000. As the media gleefully pointed out, it took the votes of political levy paying members of affiliated trade unions for Ed to win.
Most MPs backed David Miliband, including ten of the 19 subsequently chosen by their colleagues for the shadow cabinet. Among them was Alan Johnson, the man Ed Miliband appointed chancellor. Michael Meacher, an expert on the composition of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after his 2007 leadership bid, has blogged that of 258 MPs about 60 are hardcore Blairites, 60 are moderate Blairites, 80-90 are former Brownites and only 50 can be described as left or centre-left. He describes the PLP as ‘an overwhelmingly right-wing body’.
But Labour’s internal elections are difficult to read. The recent election of the party’s national executive committee (NEC) suggested a small leftward drift, with the left attracting around 50 per cent to the right’s 36 per cent. The left was hampered by a split slate, leaving an even 3-3 split of left and right constituency representatives on the NEC.
The overall picture shows the Labour right is a well organised force. It has two main groups – Progress and Labour First. The latter represents the traditional right and consists of an email list currently administered by Luke Akehurst, a prominent blogger just elected to the NEC, who surprised many by backing Ed for leader. The list contains about a thousand ‘high-value people in key positions who know how to organise’, as Akehurst puts it.
Progress, on the other hand, is the hub of the diehard New Labour wing. Founded in the 1990s by people around Peter Mandelson, funded in part by Blairite billionaire David ‘Baron’ Sainsbury, it publishes a magazine and is more metropolitan.
Akehurst says his own election to the NEC was due to ‘an unprecedented level of organisational cooperation between Progress and Labour First’, which involved the officers of Progress directly negotiating a joint list with Labour First. ‘It’s somewhat easier on our side of the fence,’ Akehurst comments, ‘as there are only two groupings and there’s a big overlap in people between them.’
The Blairites are not short of cash. Millionaires and billionaires poured money into David Miliband’s leadership campaign, with Sainsbury alone contributing over £150,000. Other notable donors included Anthony Bailey, a lobbyist associated with the Vatican, the Saudis and BAE; Gulam Noon, the so-called ‘curry king’ who was embroiled in the cash-for-peerages story; and Clive Hollick, a businessman who funded Charles Clarke and Alan Milburn’s bizarre and short-lived Blairite website 2020 Vision.
The right’s other key strength is its control of the administrative machine. According to Peter Kenyon, who runs the group Save the Labour Party, the machine consists of ‘the advisers to the leader, the whip’s office, the PLP staff, the main office at Victoria Street, the regional directors and regional boards, which are appointed. It’s a shadow management structure. Sometimes the machine fails, as it did over the leadership election. I’m told Victoria Street were all in favour of David.’
Kenyon warns of a ‘serious risk of Ed being sucked into the machine, which has an incredible ability to adapt. Above all it is concerned with retaining power at the centre. If Ed doesn’t tread on the machine’s toes, they won’t tread on his.’
But for Ed Miliband to revive the party he will need to tread on their toes. It will require a shift towards greater openness, both structurally and culturally.
This will provide opportunities for the Labour left, which is not a totally spent force after 16 years of Blairism and is now operating in a context in which Thatcherite dogmas have been discredited by events.
Although the left is weak in the PLP, it has several sources of strength. These include the unions, which are likely to be radicalised by their struggles against the cuts; the policy networks generating new ideas, brought together through Compass; those grass-roots activists who look to Campaign Group MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell; and significant support in the party at large as shown in the NEC elections.
On the structural side, where the right has the machine, the left demands greater democracy. One of the keys to this is the National Policy Forum (NPF), which was intended to end set-piece battles at conference and allow more collegiate policy-making. According to Lisa Nandy, one of the ‘new generation’ of Labour MPs who won their seats in this year’s election, ‘the NPF became an insult to party members because people felt their contribution was making no difference’.
But at the 2009 party conference a breakthrough alliance of unions and grass-roots members forced democratic reforms of the NPF against the wishes of Gordon Brown and the machine. Now constituency delegates, who make up 55 of the 184 places on the forum, are elected by a postal ballot of the whole party. And in one of his first acts as leader, Ed Miliband sacked Blairite MP Pat McFadden as chair of the NPF and nominated Peter Hain to replace him.
Hain sees his role as ensuring that the NPF ‘formulates policies rather than having them dumped on it from above’. ‘There was an attitude of “Here’s the policy, take it or leave it”,’ he says. ‘I want policy done in a different way that involves the party much more, without going back to the old-style confrontational approach at conference. I know for a fact that Ed is in the same territory because that is what he has told me.’
‘I argued in government that new policy positions on issues like student fees, foundation trusts and 90-day detention should have gone to the NPF as green papers, instead of us fighting it out in a parliamentary process, leaving blood on the floor,’ says Hain.
For Jon Lansman the policy-making process is crucial for the left. ‘All we need is the ability to argue our policies in a democratic forum. If we get that we will win some arguments and even if Ed delivers little, we will make some gains.’
In the recent election to the NPF, however, the right did very well while the left could only win a third of the places. However, Lansman says that when combined with union representatives there are still enough delegates to force minority reports on policies that would then require conference votes.
The wider left
But this limitation suggests that genuine change requires more than structural reform. For new MP Lisa Nandy, ‘It’s also about the party’s culture. The structure is easier to sort out than the culture.’ Nandy believes Labour must start thinking of itself as part of a broader grass-roots movement, ending the separation that characterised its time in power.
‘Alliances with the wider left are among the things we missed in government,’ she says. ‘We had an opportunity to build a broad left coalition. If we had done that, now we would be much better able to fight the cuts. The terms of debate would be different. Instead we’ve got disparate people fighting from different angles.’
Peter Kenyon agrees that it will take ‘a massive cultural shift in the party to give members a say and to get involved in community organisation and wider campaigns. It needs us to build alliances and links with other groups.’
At the ground level some local branches are showing the way. Leeds East Constituency Labour Party is an early starter, holding public meetings and declaring it will ‘stand shoulder to shoulder with those engaged in the defence of their public services, jobs and standard of living’. According to Richard Burgon, trade union liaison officer for the CLP, ‘the intention is to reach out to the public. No campaign can win against the cuts if it is just the Labour Party or just trade unions.’
Asked whether the national party will follow Leeds East’s example, Burgon says: ‘It definitely will if there’s a strong movement to push it in that direction. You can’t just look to the leader, you need strong union and party voices to encourage the leadership to follow the correct path, to defend it from the inevitable right-wing press backlash and to constructively criticise it if it leaves the course so that mistakes aren’t repeated.’ If Labour fails to reach out in the context of the coming cuts, Burgon believes it will become ‘irrelevant’ to the experiences of people in local communities.
Not all CLPs are as eager as Leeds East – many are more conservative, while some are depleted of members. It is too early to say if the claimed influx of new members since the election will have a significant impact. Lisa Nandy believes new approaches are needed: ‘There’s a lot of scope for us to reach out to people who don’t want to join a political party but share our broad vision, especially young people. We need new arrangements so that we can get input from those people without them having to join.’
For his part, Peter Hain believes ‘change comes through a spectrum of pressures from outside parliament and within it. There’s the potential not just for Labour but for the wider left to put our points across in a popular way that we haven’t been able to do for a long time.’
But Hain still displays the characteristic caution of the leadership: ‘As long as the wider left doesn’t think that we’ll be on every picket line, on every demonstration or that we’ll support happy-go-lucky strikes.’
If Labour wants to be, in Hain’s words, the fulcrum of the left then it has a lot of work to do. Simply thinking through some of the things Ed Miliband said in his leader’s speech, such as his belief that it is wrong for a banker to earn in a day what a cleaner earns in a year, leads to big questions about the relationship between the state and capitalism that New Labour aggressively dismissed for 16 years. Whether Labour can answer such questions in a way that offers a different route out of the economic crisis will depend on whether Ed can escape Blairite clutches and build a broad base of support for an alternative vision.
Hilary Wainwright argues against reclaiming populism for the left and for a leadership that supports people’s capacity for self-government
It may seem as though these apps are working for us, but we are also working for the apps, writes Kurt Iveson
It's over 100 years ago that domestic workers began to organise to demand the same rights as other workers. Yet with LSE cleaners on strike this week, historian Laura Schwartz asks: how much has really changed?
Omar Barghouti asks whether Donald Trump, in his recent break with America’s long-standing support for the two-state solution, has unwittingly revived the debate about the plausibility, indeed the necessity, of a single, democratic state in historic Palestine?
Glenn Greenwald was interviewed by Amandla Thomas-Johnson over the phone from Brazil. Here is what he had to say on the War on Terror, Trump, and the 'special relationship'
In 1972 David Widgery wrote about the bitter intensity of love in capitalism
Andrew Dolan on how the left must match the anti-establishment rhetoric of the right, but with a different politics
Emma Snaith speaks with directors Emer Mary Morris and Nina Scott about the power of theatre to encourage community resistance to estate demolitions.
In the first of a series of interviews with migrants' rights and racial justice activists from the US, Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Peter Pedemonti, co-founder and director of the New Sanctuary Movement in Philadelphia
Photos from The World Transformed festival in Liverpool, by David Walters
Changing our attitude to Climate Change
Paul Allen of the Centre for Alternative Technology spells out what we need to do to break through the inaction over climate change
Introducing Trump’s Inner Circle
Donald Trump’s key allies are as alarming as the man himself
Secrets and spies of Scotland Yard
A new Espionage Act threatens whistleblowers and journalists, writes Sarah Kavanagh
#AndABlackWomanAtThat – part II: a discussion of power and privilege
In the second article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the silencing of black women and the flaws in safe spaces
How progressive is the ‘progressive alliance’?
We need an anti-austerity alliance, not a vaguely progressive alliance, argues Michael Calderbank
The YPJ: Fighting Isis on the frontline
Rahila Gupta talks to Kimmie Taylor about life on the frontline in Rojava
Joint statement on George Osborne’s appointment to the Evening Standard
'We have come together to denounce this brazen conflict of interest and to champion the growing need for independent, truthful and representative media'
Paul O’Connell and Michael Calderbank consider the conditions that led to the Brexit vote, and how the left in Britain should respond
On the right side of history: an interview with Mijente
Marienna Pope-Weidemann speaks to Reyna Wences, co-founder of Mijente, a radical Latinx and Chincanx organising network
Disrupting the City of London Corporation elections
The City of London Corporation is one of the most secretive and least understood institutions in the world, writes Luke Walter
#AndABlackWomanAtThat: a discussion of power and privilege
In the first article of a three-part series, Sheri Carr reflects on the oppression of her early life and how we must fight it, even in our own movement
Corbyn understands the needs of our communities
Ian Hodson reflects on the Copeland by-election and explains why Corbyn has the full support of The Bakers Food and Allied Workers Union
Red Pepper’s race section: open editorial meeting 15 March
On 15 March, we’ll be holding the first of Red Pepper’s Race Section open editorial meetings.
Social Workers Without Borders
Jenny Nelson speaks to Lauren Wroe about a group combining activism and social work with refugees
Growing up married
Laura Nicholson interviews Dr Eylem Atakav about her new film, Growing Up Married, which tells the stories of Turkey’s child brides
The Migrant Connections Festival: solidarity needs meaningful relationships
On March 4 & 5 Bethnal Green will host a migrant-led festival fostering community and solidarity for people of all backgrounds, writes Sohail Jannesari
Reclaiming Holloway Homes
The government is closing old, inner-city jails. Rebecca Roberts looks at what happens next
Intensification of state violence in the Kurdish provinces of Turkey
Oppression increases in the run up to Turkey’s constitutional referendum, writes Mehmet Ugur from Academics for Peace
Pass the domestic violence bill
Emma Snaith reports on the significance of the new anti-domestic violence bill
Report from the second Citizen’s Assembly of Podemos
Sol Trumbo Vila says the mandate from the Podemos Assembly is to go forwards in unity and with humility
Protect our public lands
Last summer Indigenous people travelled thousands of miles around the USA to tell their stories and build a movement. Julie Maldonado reports
From the frontlines
Red Pepper’s new race editor, Ashish Ghadiali, introduces a new space for black and minority progressive voices
How can we make the left sexy?
Jenny Nelson reports on a session at The World Transformed
In pictures: designing for change
Sana Iqbal, the designer behind the identity of The World Transformed festival and the accompanying cover of Red Pepper, talks about the importance of good design
Angry about the #MuslimBan? Here are 5 things to do
As well as protesting against Trump we have a lot of work to get on with here in the UK. Here's a list started by Platform
Who owns our land?
Guy Shrubsole gives some tips for finding out
Don’t delay – ditch coal
Take action this month with the Coal Action Network. By Anne Harris
Utopia: Work less play more
A shorter working week would benefit everyone, writes Madeleine Ellis-Petersen
Mum’s Colombian mine protest comes to London
Anne Harris reports on one woman’s fight against a multinational coal giant
Bike courier Maggie Dewhurst takes on the gig economy… and wins
We spoke to Mags about why she’s ‘biting the hand that feeds her’