I know how difficult the situation now is for any left-of-centre party, trying to capture the political initiative and power from the ConDem coalition, and to overcome the now brazenly partisan Murdoch press. The way I see it, progressive politics is torn between two deeply entrenched trends: the ‘pact’ between government and the middle class, as articulated by John Kampfner in ‘Freedom for Sale’ and the need to win back the five million voters who’ve deserted Labour since 1997. Blair and Brown decided to push ahead with the former, whilst flatly ignoring the latter, and it appeared to lead to the demise of New Labour in May. David Miliband broadly seemed to have favoured the same route, but not his younger brother Ed, now leader of the Labour Party. The immediate response from the Murdoch and gutter press has been to label him ‘Red Ed’ (or #RedEd), but his politics haven’t really born this out, and it seems to be used as an attempt to misrepresent him to swing voters.
Ed is caught between neoliberal New Labour on the one side, which obsessed itself with appeasing the ‘Daily Mail-reading middle class’, relentlessly triangulating policy with focus groups and relying on narrow, lazy assumptions about who ‘middle class’ swing voters were. As an example, old guard, outgoing Shadow Chancellor Alistair Darling has duly warned Miliband can’t move the party leftwards:
Mr Darling urged Ed Miliband to show that he was not in the pockets of the unions and cautioned him against a policy of making the 50p top rate of income tax permanent.
and the other side meeting the demands of the five million who left, disgusted at the lack of social housing, the Iraq War, the party’s illiberal, authoritarian agenda its pact with the bankers who brought down the economy. The issues for Miliband boil down entirely to who these swing voters really are? Polly Toynbee suggests New Labour defined it fundamentally erroneously in the first place:
Can Ed recapture it for Labour? Newness and niceness are never enough: he will need all the firmity of purpose, authentic voice and clarity of belief his adherents claim for him.
Today he again positioned himself alongside over-worked middle income families – the real medians, earning around £25,000 a year, or £36,000 per household, and struggling.
Not the imaginary “middle class” of the Daily Mail who are in reality top earners, a misnomer that so misled Blair and Mandelson. The Miliband “squeezed middle” are the 90% who earn under the 40% tax band: they have been hit hardest in recent years while most growth went to the top 10%. So this is no retreat to a Labour comfort zone of a working-class minority. Can he persuade them Labour is on their side?
It’s clear from his public statements that he feels he’s already started talking to them. He’s addressed student debt, he’s addressed insecure contractual work, and spoken directly to people who see themselves as losers from increased globalisation and European integration, and notably denounced the decision to wage the Iraq War. But Dan Paskini in Liberal Conspiracy also demonstrates that Miliband has plenty of room to regain the votes of the lost five million:
[Lord] Ashcroft has just released research called “What future for Labour?” It includes data from more than 2,000 people who voted Labour in 2005, but who deserted the party in 2010. The results are absolutely staggering.One argument that obsesses political commentators is whether Labour should move to the left, or whether this would be electoral suicide. Amongst swing voters, 31% would be more likely to support Labour if it moved to the left, and 32% would be less likely. A plurality, 37% “are not sure what is meant by ‘moving further to the left’”.A better example of our out of touch political elite would be harder to find. While right-wing newspapers shriek about “Red Ed” “lurching to the left”, nearly 2 in 5 swing voters have no idea what they are talking about, and the rest are split evenly because those who think this would be a good or bad thing.