“Men make their own history,” wrote Karl Marx back in 1852, “but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
Marx was a wise bloke, and was in this case talking about the admittedly pretty turbulent French political scene in the mid-19th century. But, as a way of understanding how politics works, it equally applies to Ed Miliband’s occasionally besieged leadership of the Labour Party.
Ed Miliband is not — as some of his enemies would claim — on the left of the Labour party. He would, traditionally, have been seen as a fairly conventional old Labour right-winger. But for those who wanted a shift away from New Labour, it was crucial he defeated his brother in the leadership election, because David Miliband would have ideologically resisted pressure from below — no matter how strong — for a change in position. His team (who included people even more right-wing than he is) would have relished defining their man against the party and the wider labour movement. There was always the possibility, however, that Ed Miliband’s leadership would be more susceptible to pressure from below: that it could be pushed in a more radical direction if the support and will was there.
But the “circumstances existing already” for any shift away from New Labour are poor indeed. The political consensus established by Thatcher is stronger than ever. Neo-liberal ideas that would have had you castigated as a crank in the 1950s are now passed off as virtual commonsense. The trade union movement remains desperately weak. The Labour left is practically non-existent: that is, although there are thousands of members on the left, there is no coherent alternative left agenda, let alone a coherent left movement.
The terror provoked by 1980s Thatcherism and – today – by a vicious right-wing government breeds desperation: “this lot have to be thrown out, whatever the cost”. Any move to the left is seen – even by those who would want it – as too much of a risk: an indulgence that would keep the Tories in office and mean that those Labour exists to represent would continue to be pummeled.
All of this means that the New Labour right remains powerful at the top. Many of them are, generally speaking, supportive of what the Coalition is doing: after all, much of it is building on the Blairite project. Some refuse to accept Ed Miliband’s leadership as even being legitimate, because he beat his brother (by nearly 30,000 votes) with the support of the most representative members of Labour’s electoral college: rank-and-file trade unionists. Douglas Alexander and Jim Murphy are biding their time in the Shadow Cabinet, waiting for Ed Miliband to fail.
Above all, there is no adequate countervailing pressure from the left. Even if Ed Miliband wanted to break properly from New Labour, there is little room for political manoeuvre for him to do so.
That’s the context in which I understand his speech on Monday, which came after leaks drudging up memories of the Brownite insurgency against Tony Blair, and the publication of David Miliband’s would-be speech if he’d been elected leader. Whether there are Blairite fingerprints over this or not doesn’t really matter: it all certainly boosted those on the hard right of the party.
In the speech, Ed Miliband put so-called “benefits cheats” in the same category as the bankers who nearly brought the entire global economy crashing into a 1930s-style Great Depression, and who caused a crisis which we are still stuck in after nearly four years. This was, for me, deeply troubling. The government estimates that £1.5 billion a year is lost through welfare fraud, compared to £70 billion a year lost through tax evasion. The amount of benefits left unclaimed – “welfare evasion”, if you will – is about ten times the amount lost through fraud.
But, crucially, there are simply not enough jobs to go around. There are 2.5 million unemployed people in Britain today, and another 1.5 million in part-time jobs who want full-time work. That’s excluding those on incapacity benefit who the government wants to push into work. And yet there are only around 500,000 vacancies – and generally not where they are most needed. When Iain Duncan-Smith suggested the people of Merthyr – a Welsh town battered by deindustrialisation – get on the bus to find work in Cardiff, it was subsequently pointed out that there were 9 jobseekers for every 1 vacancy in the Welsh capital. As Ed Miliband himself highlighted in his response to the Budget earlier this year, there are 10 people chasing every 1 vacancy in over 130 constituencies.
Ed began Monday’s speech with an anecdote about a man on incapacity benefit who, in his view, could work. I’m not sure about the wisdom of playing amateur doctor, but in any case, the anecdote misses the point. There are not enough jobs to go round, a statement we would all be wise to repeat again and again.
It is true that, as Iain Duncan Smith has admitted, Tory governments in the 1990s manipulated unemployment figures by encouraging those without work to be transferred to incapacity benefit. But, as research by Dr Christina Beatty and Professor Steve Fothergill has revealed, many incapacity benefit claimants are those who are least able to work in areas with the least amount of jobs. When there are large numbers of people competing for a small amount of work, those with ill health are least likely to get work: hence they concluded that “the UK’s very high incapacity claimant numbers are an issue of jobs and of health.”
You can see how this has played out in Glasgow, which houses more incapacity benefit claimants than any other local authority. Indeed, the number peaked in 1995 when one in five were on IB: about three times the UK level. But as a group of Glasgow University and Glasgow City Council experts pointed out: “The main reason for the huge growth in sickness benefit claims were the city’s rapid de-industrialisation.” After all, the number of manufacturing jobs in 1991 was just a third of what it was just two decades earlier.
If there was pressure within Labour coming from the left, these are arguments that could be made. But there isn’t, and so Blairite-style benefit claimant-bashing has been resurrected. Those who argue in favour of this strategy will argue that it’s not about appealing to Daily Mail-style supporters: many natural Labour supporters will be most enthusiastic. And they are right. If you are scraping by in life, working hard in a job that you don’t enjoy, and you think that there are those enjoying a higher standard of living at your expense – that will rile you more than anyone else. Right-wing politicians and journalists know this, and exploit it ruthlessly.
But it will backfire. The strategy will fuel prejudices that the Tories will be best placed to satisfy. We will help exaggerate the scale of benefit fraud in people’s minds, and the Tories will outflank us with supposed solutions to it. Voters won’t believe Ed Miliband really means it in any case. Turning poor people against each other will not return Labour to power. What we should really be talking about is how we create secure, skilled, well-paid jobs for all.
If the left is frustrated with Ed Miliband now, they should prepare for a lot worse. The old New Labour guard will do all they can to drag Labour back to a pure Blairite formula. There is only one way to prevent this from happening, and that is to build strong left pressure within the party that defends Ed Miliband’s leadership from Blairite attacks, but attempts to drag it in a more progressive direction. We have to change the circumstances Karl Marx was talking about. Space for policies that challenge neo-liberal orthodoxy has to be created.
If we fail to do that, Labour will not win back the working-class voters whose desertion cost it power. We will lose the next election, and working people will continue to pay for a crisis they did nothing to create. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sit back and let that happen.
This article first appeared at Labour List.