Britain’s Labour Party Living in the Past

Ed Miliband claims to represent “new politics” but his class rhetoric suggests otherwise.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attends an investment conference when he was energy secretary, February 22, 2010
Labour Party leader Ed Miliband attends an investment conference when he was energy secretary, February 22, 2010 (Department of Energy and Climate Change)

Ed Miliband’s disappointing policy speech at a Labour conference in Liverpool last week was reflective of the political predicament that Britain’s largest opposition party finds itself in.

Thrown out of power overwhelmingly in last year’s parliamentary election, the Labour Party has struggled to regain traction in the polls. The ruling Conservatives, by contrast, have retained their electoral support as has Prime Minister David Cameron who, Labour’s vilifications notwithstanding, is a moderate right of center leader who appeals to a large part of the British electorate.

Although they haven’t yet won majority support and depend on the third party liberals in government, the Tories are perceived as more moderate and reliable than they were roughly ten years ago when New Labour, under Tony Blair’s leadership, appealed to college educated young urban professionals and middle-class voters who were drawn to the Liberal Democrats in the last election.

Miliband’s failure to bring these people back into the Labour Party was clear at last week’s conference when his statement, “I’m not Tony Blair,” was received with wild cheers before he could point out that he wasn’t Gordon Brown, his immediate predecessor as party leader, either.

Indeed, Miliband has taken the party to the left, away from Blairite Third Way politics and back to the trade unionism and class warfare that used to define it. In his speech, he lambasted “predatory” businesses which, he suggested, should be taxed heavier than “producers.” He complained that ordinary people were being “ripped off” by heartless energy companies and that their living standards were “squeezed by runaway rewards at the top.”

There is dissatisfaction in Britain that Miliband can speak to. Many Britons may agree that their economy and their society are “too often rewarding not the right people with the right values but the wrong people with the wrong values.” But they don’t necessarily trust the Labour Party to mend that imbalance.

When Miliband asked his conference whether they were “on the side of the wealth creators or the asset strippers?” what many voters heard was old school class politics that did not at all transcend the traditional party divides. Yet Miliband claims to represent “new politics” and he says the Conservatives are really “the same old Tory Party” when they have in fact become far more critical of their once laissez-faire economic views.

Chancellor George Osborne promised his conference on Sunday that he would “intervene where the market doesn’t work.” If both parties will, the Conservatives are regarded as frugal managers of the economy at least whose objective is to generate growth whereas Labour is perceived as spendthrift and trying to protect existing jobs, especially in the public sector, when new jobs are needed.

Osborne said that he was “optimistic for the future” and claimed that austerity was the way toward “a better Britain.” The Conservatives seem to know where they want to take the country and it’s foreward. Miliband’s Labour Party is living in the past.