Labour Party: Murdoch’s Blairite offensive
Is Ed Miliband moving left? Mike Macnair examines what lies behind the campaign run by The Times
Since the beginning of this month The Times has been running a Blairite offensive against the Labour Party leadership.
It began with a Bloomberg interview with Tony Blair on April 5 - mainly about his now extensive (and deeply obscure) business operations, on which the May edition of Bloomberg Markets Magazine is running an article (perhaps describable as an exposé).1 Almost the only part of this interview which The Times found it worthwhile to report on April 6 was a throwaway comment towards its end that “Frankly, if I’d had a fourth election, I would have given Cameron a run for his money. I’m not saying I would have won, but it would have been tighter than it was.” This was nonsense (if Labour had failed to get rid of Blair it might well have been driven into third place in 2010). The report was accompanied by a ‘depth profile’ of the Blair-Brown relationship by former Blairite aide and Times columnist Philip Collins. The murky business affairs with which Bloomberg was mainly concerned were, evidently, not news as far as The Times was concerned.
On April 9, the day after Margaret Thatcher’s death, Collins was back, on Thatcher’s influence on New Labour. “[T]he Blair Labour Party,” he says, “owed its economic education to the Thatcher years.” In addition:
The third similarity between Mrs Thatcher and Mr Blair is that they were both able to expand the reach of their parties.
Neither came from the dominant social class within their party, an inestimable advantage in modern British politics and one attribute David Cameron will never have.
No party can win if it appeals exclusively to its own redoubt and both the Thatcher Tory Party and the Blair Labour Party were able to move out of their traditional areas of support.
On April 11 Blair published in the centenary issue of the New Statesman an attack on the danger of Labour falling back on its ‘core support’ by simply opposing government cuts. His alternative was a seven-point set of ‘questions’, none of which tackle the core economic issues posed by the 2008 crash and the ensuing stagnation. Substantively, the ‘questions’ are so drawn as to invite answers which merely restate the broad outlines of the ‘social’ policies of his own governments, albeit mingled with some Cameron-Osborne ideas about “fundamental reform of the post-war state”.
On April 12 this trivial squib was the basis of the Times front-page headline: “Blair warns Miliband: it’s time to face reality”. The issue added comments along the same lines from Peter Mandelson; an editorial; a ‘background’ story from Times web editor Philip Webster; and another story backing Blair’s agenda from New Statesman editor Jason Cowley (another Times graduate, from the 1990s).
On April 13, reference to Blair’s intervention was included in the Times report of the selection of the Labour candidate for the South Shields by-election following the resignation of David Miliband. By April 15 the Times story was that John Reid and David Blunkett were reported as backing Blair’s intervention.
On April 16 the paper carried a long comment piece by Rachel Sylvester (The Daily Telegraph 1992-98 and 1999-2008, The Independent on Sunday 1998-99, The Times since 2008), reasserting the line that Labour must go beyond its ‘comfort zone’: “Labour should be seeking the endorsement of as wide a section of the electorate as possible by championing aspiration, advocating fairness at the bottom as well as the top and showing itself able to take tough decisions on public spending.”
On April 17 The Times kept the story alive by reporting briefly that “Ed Miliband will meet Tony Blair this week as the Labour leader tries to play down signs of a rift between them. The two men are expected to meet in the next few days in the aftermath of the most critical intervention by the former prime minister since Mr Miliband took over the party leadership.”
April 19 saw Labour return to the front page, with the headline, “Labour turmoil as unions grab safe European seats,” reporting “new fears among Blairites that union dominance in the party is growing before the next general election”:
Party branches across London are in open revolt after the decision to exclude Anne Fairweather from the party’s list of candidates for next year’s elections. She received strong backing from members in the last European election in 2009 and only just missed out on a seat, despite the party’s low standing in the opinion polls ...
Ms Fairweather, who was not even among about 20 candidates interviewed by the selection panel, has said that she was told the decision to exclude her was a “political judgment”. Her allies believe that her background in business, including her old post as a former director of the British Bankers’ Association, counted against her. They also say her omission clears the way for two candidates backed by Unite and the GMB ...
Dog bites man shock: a party whose name is the Labour party selects union officials, refuses to select former bank lobbyist ...
So far, this was pretty much simply a Times operation. However, on April 21 the Mail on Sunday got in on the act with a report that Ed Miliband met George Galloway for a discussion lasting an hour.2 This story has got much wider coverage. Labour Party official sources claim that it was merely about an individual Commons vote, but Galloway in response has threatened to “tell the whole truth” about the meeting. The usual Blairite suspects responded with the usual synthetic outrage. The press generally happily jumped on the bandwagon of either the ‘Red Ed’ idea or that Miliband is (the Mail’s line) “naive” (hence, of course, not fit to be prime minister).
Not moving left
We should certainly not imagine that this Murdoch-Blairite press offensive represents an actual move to the left on the part of the Labour leadership. The point was well made by Rafael Behr in the New Statesman’s The Staggers politics blog: “… the remarkable thing is not how far Miliband has shifted to the left, but how little.”3 What, then, is the story really about?
For Blair individually, it is fairly obviously advantageous that British news coverage should right now be about ‘Tony Blair’s criticisms of Ed Miliband’ rather than about Bloomberg’s story concerning ‘Tony Blair’s business interests’. For the Murdoch media, a distinct agenda is involved.
Murdoch backed Blair to become leader of the Labour Party, and backed him to become prime minister in 1997. After the 2005 election and the election of David Cameron as Tory leader, Murdoch’s view fairly rapidly became clear from the coverage that Blair should continue as caretaker PM until Cameron could take over; The Times gave backing to Cameron, while other Tory papers were decidedly sceptical. This project was disrupted by Labour’s serious decline in the opinion polls and losses in local government, which led to Blair being forced in September 2006 to announce that he would step down by September 2007; and his replacement then by the ‘coronation’ of Gordon Brown.
The Times’s attitude to Brown was frankly vitriolic, and it led the ‘press pack’ in promoting smear stories about him - with a fairly brief respite in 2008-09, when Brown was briefly seen as the saviour of capitalism in face of the financial crash.
In 2010 the Murdoch papers shared, briefly, the general enthusiasm for the idea of a Tory victory combined with a Liberal Democrat surge to put Labour into third place and restore the 19th century shape of British politics - without a party of labour even of the weak, loyalist type represented by the existing Labour Party. Since 2010 they have been among the steadiest in supporting the Cameron-Osborne ‘austerity agenda’. But since Cameron failed to squash the phone-hacking scandal, and set up the Leveson enquiry, they have taken some distance from him through stories of ‘incompetence’ and ‘lack of direction’ in the government (for another recent example see The Times April 23).
There is a simple story which is naturally to be inferred from this history. This is that Murdoch expects to be able to choose the leaders of British political parties - and he expects them, when in office, to defend his interests and his policies. If candidates not supported by News International are elected as leaders, or if they pursue policies Murdoch opposes, they can expect to receive large amounts of targeted negative spin - with The Times, as the ‘newspaper of record’ and one which is traditionally not as obviously partisan as the Telegraph, Mail or Express, being able to lead the ‘press pack’ - including The Guardian and The Independent - in this direction. Parties are expected to learn the lesson: do as Murdoch tells you and choose his favourites for your leaders, or else ...
The Times has been very sharply hostile to Silvio Berlusconi - he is, after all, a business competitor of News International as well as an Italian politician. But it seems, from the conduct of his papers in these matters, that Murdoch has aimed for the sort of domination of British politics through media that Berlusconi has had in Italy: albeit Berlusconi was forced by the threat of prosecution to actually stand for office, and thereby obtain immunity (a right not possessed by British MPs), while Murdoch has not been threatened with personal prosecution.
Not moving right
Beyond this agenda of simply asserting the political power of News International, the Blairites’ and their journo allies’ objection to ‘Red Ed’ is certainly not that Miliband is really moving Labour to the left - or even failing to resist leftward moves from the trade unions. Rather, it is that Miliband is not - as they think he should be - moving Labour right, in order to ‘triangulate’ on what they see as a rightward-moving ‘middle ground.’ The Con-Dems and the Tory press, after all, are pushing the overall political agenda further to the right around the question of welfare, and though ‘NHS failure’ stories and the government’s projects of privatising health, as well as education.
This is, in fact, the inherent infernal logic of ‘triangulation’. The right and the media which supports the right, who have a clear agenda - originally promoted in small-scale opposition by Hayek and similar ‘cranks’ in the 1950s - actively move the political agenda to the right. It is clear that the ‘Cameron project’ was from the outset to dump the traditional Tories’ rightist-Christian social agenda and association with ‘climate change sceptic’ charlatans, in order to facilitate sharp rightward moves on the questions of ‘welfarism,’ tax and state spending: not to be a ‘consensus politician’. The crash, the bail-outs and the resulting ‘deficit agenda’ have led to downplaying the question of tax - but have also provided a beautiful cover, in the form of debate over cuts, for the privatisation agenda in health and education.
As long as Labour seeks to ‘triangulate’ in order to obtain office, it will have to move to the right along with ‘public opinion’: as Behr puts it, it will have to come to “distasteful compromises that need making with public opinion”; and “What is preventing Miliband from becoming the ultimate fantasy candidate of the anti-Blair revanche? No-one but Miliband himself and his ambition to win an election.” But the historical result is a ratchet which can only ever move rightwards. If the aim of getting rid of Labour in favour of a Tory-Liberal two-party system failed in 2010, a Labour government elected on the basis of ‘triangulation’ in 2015 would be highly vulnerable to a similar offensive.
Left not moving
The left - both organised and ‘independent’ - keeps on doing the same thing over and over again: whether it is so-called ‘Leninist’ sects which aim at bureaucratic control over the movement; or broad-front unity projects which aim to replace the existing Labour Party without a strategic alternative policy. In doing so it is immobile and does not do the limited things it could do towards reversing the dynamic towards the right.
What the left needs now is not ‘its own Thatcher’: Thatcher was merely a product of the rightward ratchet process, which began - albeit initially slowly - with the defeat of the 1945-51 Labour government. Wilson 1964-70 was to the right of Attlee, Heath to the right of Macmillan, Wilson-Callaghan 1974-79 to the right of Wilson 1964-70, Thatcher to the right of Heath, and so on.
What we need has two elements. The ‘larger’ is to rebuild the workers’ movement at the base - trade unions, cooperatives, mutual welfare funds, and so on - which has been hollowed out by the combination of statisation and bureaucratic control.
The ‘smaller’ is to develop a strategic alternative on the left, analogous but opposed to the strategic alternative on the right developed by Hayek and similar thinkers and lobby-groups in opposition in the 1950s and 1960s. Regrettable as it may be, this unavoidably involves revisiting questions like what was wrong with the Soviet and Soviet-bloc regimes and their economies which led to their fall; and how far socialism in one country is possible. The reason is that the left remains in the shadow of the USSR and its fall. It will remain in this shadow until it explicitly comes to terms with this history and proposes alternatives which clearly do not amount to proposals to repeat what was done in the USSR - or what was done in Britain, western Europe and other ‘front-line states’ in response to the ‘Soviet threat’.
Both tasks unavoidably pose the ‘party question’. This is not because - as most of the so-called ‘Leninist’ left argues - the mass struggle needs a ‘general staff’ or ‘high command’. Rather, the problem is that the capitalist class intervenes in the life of the workers’ movement - through the press, as in Murdoch’s Blairism, and also through the judiciary’s interventions in and against trade unions. We cannot stop them doing so: we can only counter-intervene through our own public press. Moreover, it would be obviously illusory to imagine that wealthy donors would fund a genuinely leftwing think-tank or genuinely leftwing media, as, in the 50s and 60s, they funded genuinely rightwing think-tanks.
We need party organisation to raise the resources, to promote our own collective media and discussions - and to do so in a way which is democratically accountable to the membership.
2. Daily Mail April 21..