Miliband reassures capital

Peter Manson considers Ed Miliband's vacuous speech to Labour Party conference

The Daily Telegraph described it as “a notable shift to the left”, but you could have fooled me (September 28). Ed Miliband’s vacuous speech to the Labour conference in Liverpool was pretty much what we always get from the party’s leaders - clear attempts to demonstrate to the ruling class that Labour can be trusted to safeguard its interests, mixed with sound-bite sops aimed at pleasing the party’s working class constituency.

On the eve of his speech the Telegraph editorial had warned Miliband that Labour must ‘repent’ of its past errors and recognise that “it is the business community - and only the business community - that will power a sustainable recovery” (September 27). But the paper did not seem to notice the centrality afforded by the Labour leader precisely to that “community” - I lost count of the number of times he said “pro-business” in his speech. (“All parties must be pro-business today,” he said as an aside - as if it was an obvious truth that capitalism, and capitalism alone, can offer social well-being and stability.)

And Miliband did his fair share of ‘repenting’ too. He claimed that Labour had been “wrong” to oppose some of the key elements of Thatcherism - the sell-off of council houses, the abolition of top-rate income tax and the anti-union laws (or at least the closed shop and strike ballots). He also tried to placate the “business community” with the admission that Labour had “lost trust on the economy” - the next Labour government will “only spend what we can afford”.

Rest assured, Labour will continue with the coalition’s disastrous, anti-working class assault: “We won’t be able to reverse many of the cuts.” In fact, “If this government fails to deal with the deficit, we will deal with it.” But that did not stop him claiming that the country needed to “change course” - there has to be cuts with growth, you see (the key phrase, repeated by all Labour’s leaders, to describe the coalition’s cuts policy is “too far, too fast”). As if Labour’s tinkering proposals on VAT, etc would effect a miraculous recovery in Britain, while capitalism globally slumps into another devastating recession.

Miliband’s speech was full of moral posturing - stuffed with meaningless verbiage about the need for a “something for something” society. He launched attacks on the usual easy targets - Rupert Murdoch, irresponsible bankers, “runaway rewards at the top” and, of course, welfare “scroungers”. He made the frankly idiotic proposal that the welfare system must do more to reward those who “contribute” to society. So people who are deemed to have ‘contributed’ - through voluntary or charity work, for example - would be able to jump the housing queue, ahead of, say, single parents (who, as everybody knows, “contribute” nothing to society by bringing into the world talented, capable human beings). Not that there are many council houses left for anyone, thanks to the Thatcherite consensus on the question.

But Miliband was careful to play to his audience in the hall too, railing against the minority of business “predators” - “How dare they say, ‘We’re all in it together’?” he asked (it was this section of his speech that concerned the rightwing media). And how about: “There should be a workers’ representative on every board”?

Then there was the patriotism that goes down so well with business and union leaders alike - although I am not sure what Ralph Miliband would have made of the claim that “My parents came to Britain and embraced British values”. It was Ed’s brother, David, who once said that his father would be “turning in his grave” if he could see his two sons today - Ralph was passionate about socialism (however he understood it), not nationalistic, Labourite “British values”.

All in all, Miliband did enough to please most union leaders. Unison general secretary Dave Prentis had pointed out on the eve of the speech that public sector workers fighting for their jobs and to protect services and their pensions “look to Labour now more than ever to support them and speak up for them”. Though he demanded support from the Labour Party and the Labour leader for the November 30 pensions protest strike, he put on a show of not appearing to be disappointed afterwards, claiming to detect in the leader’s utterances the recognition of “the role that every working person plays in creating wealth”.

Unite’s general secretary, Len McCluskey, thought that under Miliband Labour was once more becoming a “people’s party” - “a phoenix rising from the ashes” - while Paul Kenny of the GMB could not praise Miliband highly enough: he has “emerged as a senior politician with courage, conviction and honesty”.

Part of this reaction is, I am sure, connected not so much to the actual speech, but to comments made by deputy leader Harriet Harman in a pre-conference interview. She was asked by journalist Mary Riddell about Labour’s attitude to the November 30 day of action, and to strikes in general: “Would she support strikes if they were justified?”

Harman replied: “If they’re justified, then by definition. You shouldn’t be saying to people they can’t strike if they’ve gone through the processes in a just cause.” Riddell reported that Harman had warned how important it was to “keep the public onside”. But, Riddell asked, “… if all factors come down in favour of action, strikes included, then they should go ahead?” The response was: “Well, I’m sure that will be Ed’s view - go on with the negotiations, make the arguments, but we’re not going to be on the side of the government behaving unreasonably …’” (The Daily Telegraph September 24).

This was enough for the Morning Star to start its report in the next issue in this way: “Unions gave a cautious welcome to a shift in Labour’s position on public sector strikes yesterday after deputy leader Harriet Harman indicated that the party would support them if the government remains ‘unreasonable’ during talks.” The Star article continued: “Labour leader Ed Miliband also toned down his anti-strike rhetoric since the TUC two weeks ago … he urged ministers to engage in ‘serious’ negotiations to prevent a mass walkout in November” (September 26).

I am not convinced that a shift has taken place since the TUC. In fact, while Miliband spoke against the last anti-cuts day of action on June 30, and repeated his ‘disagreement’ with it at the TUC, he has so far said nothing at all about November 30. If, as one has to assume, Harman was putting forward the official line (and Miliband did, after all, start his conference speech with a tribute to “our fantastic deputy leader”), then you could say that the “shift”, for what it is worth, took place well before the TUC.

In fact Harman’s comments were not quite so clear-cut as the Star made out. At best, they were an indication that the leadership would maintain a studious neutrality on November 30. When has Labour ever officially offered its “support” for any strike taking place in Britain? Nevertheless, Harman’s comments demonstrate that the move to the left that is taking place within the unions, marked by their leaders’ militant rhetoric and action (despite their wishful thinking about Miliband), is making some kind of impact within the party, including the leadership.

The unions’ influence was also noticeable in the agreed final version of the Refounding Labour document. As one conference delegate told me, any possibility of a drastic reduction in that influence has “surely been averted for now”, with the limiting of the proportion of the vote to be enjoyed by the new category of “registered supporters”. Once their number reached the 50,000 minimum, they would account for 3% of the vote to elect the Labour leader, taking 1% each from the unions, constituency Labour Parties and MPs. That 3% would theoretically increase proportionally as the number of supporters rose, up to a maximum of 10%.

It is typical of the Labour right to want to push through this kind of nonsensical change, allowing non-members to have a say, however small, in party business. But it all helps to cement the leadership’s control by diluting activist influence still further.

For example, there are only formal traces of internal democracy left in the running of conference. Most of the policy decisions are made by the adoption - take it or leave it - of policy forum reports: no amendments to these are permitted. Only eight “contemporary motions” are allowed - and the ones that get to be debated are arrived at by the CLPs and unions voting for four each. This year three motions were selected by both delegate categories, so only five in all were debated!

None of this bureaucratic control is set in stone, however. A large part of the blame for the current state of affairs must rest with the union’s own bureaucracy - the union leaders consented to Tony Blair’s massacring of debate and democracy. Just like in the Labour Party, union branches are often barely functioning, top-down bodies. The fight to defeat the Labour right must begin with the fight of the rank and file to win control of their unions.