Writing in yesterday’s Financial Times, George Parker and Jim Pickard, give expression to the popular idea that Ed Miliband’s confrontation with the unions provides him with the opportunity for a “Clause IV moment”, defining his independence as a potential prime minister from the legacy of labourism.
Like Mr Blair, Mr Miliband is now trying to turn this confrontation with the party’s main source of income – and his most important backers in the leadership contest – into proof that he is prepared to take hard decisions in the face of the most powerful vested interests.
It is not clear whether Mr Miliband was seeking this clash; indeed, the pay restraint policy was announced by Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, last weekend and was not mentioned by the Labour leader when he made his keynote economic speech a few days earlier.
But now that the unions are manning the barricades, Mr Miliband has seized his opportunity, arguing his priority is jobs, not pay rises: “I am changing the Labour party so we can deliver fairness even when there is less money around and that requires tough decisions.”
To contextualise Tony Blair’s victory over Clause IV, perhaps we need to understand the political change represented by New Labour coming to power within the party, and the elements of continuity and discontinuity with the Labour’s own past.
Diane Hayter in her partisan but not unreliable book Fightback! describes how the traditional revisionist right organised to reverse the gains of the left in the Bennite era, around the issues of One Member One Vote (OMOV) and campaigning for the expulsion of the Militant. The defection of a large section of the party’s centre-right to the Social Democratic Party (SDP, who later became part of the Lib Dems) was a defeat for the traditional revisionists who remained in Labour; but it was also a terrible defeat for the left, whose rising influence was seen by some in the trade unions and the party’s political centre as a threat to the broad coalitional nature of the party, and thus were unjustly regarded by many as being to blame for splitting the organisation.
The party was gripped by two simultaneous political crises. The crisis of the revisionist right was that their radical agenda for combating inequality required economic growth and stability, conditions that no longer prevailed, and which were predicated upon a verion of Keynesianism that had proved unworkable; and the even more acute crisis of the left was that their transformative economic and social agenda was revealed to be connected to too narrow a social base to win elections. It is important to note that both the left and the right were within the envelope of Labourism: the paradoxical expression of trade unionism in the political field, which expresses opposition to manifestations of capitalism, and seeks to transform it without transcending it.
The key transitional figures of Neil Kinnock and John Smith represented complementary shifts: firstly of the Kinnockite left recognising that a General Election could not be won on the basis of the politics of the Labour left alone, and that a more coalitional approach was required; and secondly of Smith, perhaps the most heavyweight traditional revisionist in the party, and who was backed to become leader by some of the left, consolidating the move by the Labour right in the direction of Thatcherite economic policy. Arguably, Neil Kinnock’s 1989 policy statement “Meet the Challenge, Make the Change” approved by party conference was a complete assimilation by a section of the former left of Anthony Crosland’s revisionist agenda. A party that loses four consecutive general elections has considerable motivation for rethinking itself.
The bright and shiny clique of New Labour succeeded in winning the party not by becoming a majority, but by developing a convincing coalitional strategy for winning general elections. This involved both the now famous arts of triangulation and spin, but also hollowing out any distinctive ideological content of labourism. In the absence of any other electorally credible strategy they won over the centre right, and support from the traditionalist trade unions. In contrast, the left lost this battle because they seemed to be refusing to budge on a political programme that was increasingly out of tune with the voters, and were unable to convince the party centre that they represented anything but a one way ticket to oblivion.
Replacing the specific traditional wording of Clause IV of the party’s constitution was symbolic, particularly as it was unfinished business for the right in the party having originally been attempted by Hugh Gaitskell as leader thirty years earlier. But crucially, it was mainly of indirect importance, and therefore to many Labour voters and supporters the defence of the old Clause IV by the left made them seem factional and unconcerned with winning a general election. What is more, Tony Blair used the opportunity of replacing Clause IV to signal his conclusive triumph closing a faction fight, not to start a new one.
In contrast, Ed Miliband has badly misjudged the situation. A pay freeze for public sector workers is far from symbolic, it directly affects the prosperity of millions of hard working voters, and the interests of those public sector voters are represented by powerful trade unions. What is more, until now those unions have been broadly supportive of Ed Miliband, and have exercised self-restraint in the debates within the Labour Party. But the public sector members of UNITE, GMB and UNISON will expect the unions to prosecute their interests in the political arena, and that means Ed Miliband has picked an unnecessary fight with the unions, over an issue where the union leaders have no choice but to stand up to him.
The balance of power is also different: Tony Blair had a credible electoral strategy and was personally popular, so he had a strong hand to play. Ed Miliband is less popular than the party, and there are widespread doubts that he has the personal qualities to win.
But equally ill judged is Miliband’s mistake in conceding the argument that austerity in public sector pay is necessary for deficit reduction, which the Tories spin as proof that the last Labour government’s spending was profligate, and that Labour was therefore to blame for the recession.
Paradoxically therefore, as Owen Jones has observed, it is now the left that is forced to come to the defence of the positive parts of Tony Blair’s legacy, under attack not only from the Tories, but also from the Blairites!
We therefore need to confront the beguiling fallacy that Blairism was simply a continuation of Thatcherism. This is not entirely without foundation, but it is also misleading. Blair and Brown both accept the idea of market efficiency as ideologically neutral; and this therefore represents continuity with the neo-liberalism of Thatcher in further dismantling the capacity of the state to intervene in the economy, and in degrading the traditional social-democratic institutions that produce a public service ethos and sustain communities of solidarity. Privatisation and PFI reduced the public sector, and macro-economic policy privileged the financial sector in London at the expense of perhaps a million private sector manufacturing jobs in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English provinces.
Nevertheless, there were policies directly to benefit trade unions – such as union learning, and rights to recognition; these were the result of the coalitional social nature of the Labour Party. But Blairism was also founded on the idea of creating a fairer, more harmonious society through an empowering partner state that provides conditions for individuals to help themselves.
Some gains were indeed realised, for example, when Labour took power in 1997, NHS spending was at around 5% of GDP, and the conditions had been created by the Tories for an expansion of insurance based private sector; instead NHS spending rose to be around 10% of GDP in 2010. Early years intervention, such as SureStart centres for the parents of potentially disadvantaged young children has been a great success; and working tax credit has enormously increased prosperity and independence of parents in work. Labour repealed Clause 28, and introduced civil partnerships
None of these policies could have come from the Tories, and many are under threat from David Cameron. By seemingly endorsing the narative that the current government deficit was caused by profligate spending under the Labour government, and that cuts are necessary, the Blairites in the party are threatening the positive aspects of Tony Blair’s legacy. It is a tragedy therefore that Ed Miliband and Ed Balls have retreated in that direction as well.
What Ed Miliband should reflect upon is that Hugh Gaitskell’s “Clause IV moments” caused that former Labour leader to be seen as divisive and out of touch with Labour voters and the unions, and Gaitskell never won a general election despite challenging an unpopular and manifestly failing Tory government.