The new leader of the British Labour Party, Ed Miliband, has inspired an amazing outpouring of venom.
Having beaten by a whisker his older brother David in the party’s leadership contest, he is being demonised by right-wing columnists as ‘Red Ed’, an inheritor of the revolutionary zeal of his father, the renowned Marxist academic Ralph Miliband, who fled to Britain from Belgium during World War Two as a Jewish refugee from Nazi-dominated Europe and who died in 1994.
Ed Miliband’s detractors focus relentlessly on the fact that he owed his triumph to trades union votes and that by recklessly choosing the ‘wrong’ Miliband the Labour Party has ensured that Britain’s Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition government led by Prime Minister David Cameron will face an opposition party so extreme as to lack all credibility.
In sober truth, there is no great ideological chasm between Ed and David Miliband, any more than there was between their respective mentors, the former Labour leaders and successive British prime ministers Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. What does distinguish Ed, whose leadership campaign manager was the personable south London Muslim MP Sadiq Khan, is that in contrast to his brother he was not conspicuously involved in the hijacking of the Labour party by Blair and ‘New Labour’. He was not part of the Blair government that turned Britain into an abject stooge of the United States and committed Britain to the catastrophic US-led Iraq War; nor, unlike his brother, who until May of this year was Britain’s Foreign Secretary, has he faced accusations of complicity with the US over the torture of terrorist suspects.
Victory for David Miliband in the leadership contest would inescapably have seemed like a vindication of the Blairite legacy, a declaration that, despite Iraq, the Labour Party believed that the values that informed Blair’s New Labour project were essentially sound. Blairite sections of the Labour Party are bitter that the Miliband brother who was seen as Blair’s natural successor has been robbed of his rightful inheritance by the trade union block vote. That the unions rejected David Miliband reflected enduring Labour feuding between the Blairites and Brownites, with the unions supporting the rhetorically more leftist stance of the latter, but it also testified to the determination of large numbers of working people to purge the party of the moral stain of being associated with a leader whom millions of across the world regard as a war criminal.
The palpable anger on the face of David Miliband when his brother, in his Labour Party conference speech last week, acknowledged that the Iraq war as a mistake suggested among other things that he would not have been speaking in such terms had he become Labour leader. At any rate, David Miliband has now withdrawn from front-line politics and New Labour has lost its standard-bearer. A large part of the raison d’etre of New Labour was to appease vested Western interests, the kind epitomised by the neo-conservative media mogul Rupert Murdoch. Tony Blair fashioned a party that operated on the premise that it was Britain’s destiny to be utterly submissive to globalised free markets and embrace without question the foreign policies of the United States and Israel, irrespective of the consequences for British relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds.
It is the mere possibility that a Labour Party led by a politician who might display independence of mind that explains the strident vilification of Ed Miliband. This after all is a peculiarly anxious moment in Britain, as elsewhere, for vested interests, with the coalition government of David Cameron poised to make vast cuts in public expenditure that are certain to have a devastating impact on the lives of millions. For years the assumption has been that following the neo-liberal transformation that Britain underwent at the hands of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher during the 1980s and that Tony Blair and New Labour did much to entrench, Britain had said a definitive goodbye to left-wing politics. Yet suddenly the possibility has emerged that Britain’s economic ills and the drastic cure that the coalition government of David Cameron is prescribing for them could rekindle the sort of radicalism for which the Labour Party was once a vehicle.
Already there is widespread resentment that the burden of tackling an economic crisis precipitated by bankers and the financial sector should be borne by the public sector and ordinary people. What seems certain to make things especially tricky for the Cameron government is that it is composed to a spectacular degree of the very rich. The key question is whether it is going be democratically viable for hugely wealthy politicians to implement policies that impact disproportionately not just on the poor and disadvantaged, among whom Muslims figure large, but also on those of middle income.
If Britain’s conservative newspapers are fearful to the point of paranoia that a leftist leader of the Labour Party might be able to turn mass hardship to political advantage, it is not without reason. It is a measure of how frantic they are to discredit him that Ed Miliband’s attackers appear not to have noticed the incoherent, not to say ludicrously contradictory, character of their onslaught on his campaign. Even as they smeared him as a ‘red’ menace, a Fidel Castro who could turn Britain into a north European version of Cuba, they scoffed at the Labour Party for electing an utterly implausible leader who is certain to consign it to oblivion.
Meanwhile, it is natural to wonder what Ralph Miliband would be making of the extraordinary power struggle between his clever, furiously ambitious sons, with its echoes of the brutal fratricidal dramas of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures. As a socialist who was appalled by US foreign policy, he would have loathed everything about the politics of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Yet now he would surely be rejoicing in the demise of New Labour. The old Marxist firebrand might even be allowing himself to dream impossible dreams.
Neil Berry is a London-based commentator