He out-Blaired Blair
It was a speech that hit Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Mandelson and the entire New Labour hierarchy – including his own brother David – over the head with their own playbook. Ed Miliband showed in one powerful punch that he got the first lesson of New Labour, namely; start by challenging your own party’s orthodoxies.
Blair’s formula for demonstrating strength early on was to show an openness to taking on the established wisdom of his own camp. This was clearly Miliband’s objective too and he undoubtedly achieved it. Only this time, the orthodoxies were Blair’s. It was a bonfire of the New Labour vanities. From tuition fees – an early unpopular policy of the Blair-Brown years – to the alarmingly draconian ninety day detention without charge, to excessive deregulation of the financial sector, as well as over reliance upon it as the only engine for growth, to the casual erosion of civil liberties, his litany of denunciation was long and loud. He even attacked the culture of New Labour in “the company we kept” with the unboundaried courting, adulation and occasional favouring of the super wealthy set.
And then finally he tackled the Iraq war head on, starkly and without equivocation; “We were wrong” he said. This was Ed Miliband’s Clause 4 moment. In the same way that Clause 4 had represented an out-of-touchness about the Labour Party for a previous generation, so the Iraq war has come to represent the same for the current generation. Although its emotional significance is far more profound. There were millions of people across the country who began haemorrhaging away from the party because of it. Men and women who had never marched before marched against it, and a whole generation of young idealistic voters were lost to New Labour for ever. I know many card carrying members of the party who couldn’t bring themselves to go to the polls for Labour after that as a result. They will all have felt a huge weight lifted by the new leader’s proclamation yesterday.
“We’ve got our party back” is how many, including former leader Neil Kinnock, are describing their reaction. It needed to be said for Labour to regain its authenticity and be taken seriously again but it also needs to be acknowledged that this cannot have been an easy thing to do.
It was far more potentially divisive than Blair’s Clause 4 moment. Ed Miliband clearly knew that making such a bold statement would literally cause offence to the dozens of senior figures across the party who voted for the war and spent half their subsequent careers defending it in TV studios – and their own heads – day in day out. The attack on their consciences was visible in their discomfort, even to the point where the famously calm David Miliband lost his cool and made a comment, the broadcast of which, he surely now regrets.
We know very little about Ed Miliband but one thing is becoming increasingly evident; he has the nerve to do what he believes is right. Even though he knew it would divide his own family, he felt he could do a better job of giving Labour a fresh start than his brother and so he challenged him. Even though his stance on many of New Labour’s unpopular and, in many cases, unworthy orthodoxies would tear at the souls of his colleagues, his former bosses and predecessors, he opened his leadership by taking them on explicitly. In so doing he has demonstrated starkly the very argument he made for his own candidacy as opposed to his brothers.
What he is doing is not taking Labour to a far left homeland, but adjusting it to the new centre ground. One Blair and the previous generation are not so well attuned to. Just like all earth, centre grounds in politics shift too. Not so many years ago gay rights and power sharing with Sinn Fein were considered extreme. Now, opposing them would be. In a future conference, ten or twenty years from now, a successor to Ed Miliband will stand on the platform and denounce substantial tracts of what the now former leader stood for. Only the difference, I suspect, will be that on that day the retired Mr Miliband, watching from home, will feel, not offence, but a sense of pride that the path to rebirth through shedding the old has been rediscovered once more, just as he did back in his first conference speech as leader in Manchester 2010.
(Photo: Getty Images)Tagged in: Blair, clause 4, conference, ed miliband, iraq, labour
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