Miliband Repudiates New Labour at His Party’s Peril

A Labour Party that lurches to the left will lose the confidence of Britain’s middle-class voters.

Labour leader Ed Miliband addresses his party conference
Labour leader Ed Miliband addresses his party conference (PA/Dave Thompson)

Speaking at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester on Tuesday, Britain’s opposition leader Ed Miliband seemed keen to distance himself from the “New Labour” program of his predecessors.

New Labour under Prime Minister Tony Blair in the 1990s signaled a more centrist socialist party that accepted many of the market reforms that were implemented in the previous decade by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government and broadened Labour’s electoral appeal to middle-class voters. It was ideologically aligned to President Bill Clinton’s “Third Way” in the United States which preserved the fiscal and trade policies of the previous Republican administrations.

According to Miliband, New Labour was “was too silent about the responsibility of those at the top,” however. He argued that the wealthy “have the biggest responsibility to show responsibility to the rest of our country,” in other words: should pay higher taxes.

Miliband stressed that Labour had to be “the party of the private sector as much as the party of the public sector” yet the tone and substance of Tuesday’s speech as well as previous ones he has delivered was more reminiscent of British socialism in the 1980s which similarly rallied against budget cuts and the rich.

Last year, Miliband criticized “predatory” business practices and “wealth strippers” which he claimed were ripping ordinary people off. They were “squeezed by runaway rewards at the top,” he lamented, while British society was “too often rewarding not the right people with the right values but the wrong people with the wrong values.”

The statements were generally interpreted as a return to past Labour strategy when it was in opposition to Thatcher’s “nasty” Tory Party and her adherents who believed in smaller government and free enterprise.

There certainly is dissatisfaction in Britain that Miliband can speak to. Many Britons may agree that the 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 the imbalance.

When Miliband asked his conference last year whether they were “on the side of the wealth creators or the asset strippers?” what many voters heard was familiar class politics that did not at all transcend the traditional partisan divides. Yet Miliband claims to represent “new politics” whereas the Conservatives are really “the same old Tory Party.” In fact, the right has become far less enthusiastic about the laissez-faire economic views of the Thatcher era.

Indeed, Prime Minister David Cameron’s party can fairly be considered the centrist one in Britain today whereas Labour, as The Telegraph‘s Janet Daley observed last year, “once again belongs to its hard core adherents.”

As with committed political activist in any party, Labour’s are convinced that the other side isn’t just wrong but evil. That doesn’t just put off middle-class voters without whom Labour can’t win a majority but many of their working-class supporters as well.

Its main constituent parts — militant unionism and […] salon leftism — may be incompatible on many fronts but what they have in common is an inexhaustible contempt for the opinions of ordinary people, or more specifically, that cohort of people which determines the outcome of elections.

Miliband’s repudiation of the strategy that salvaged Labour’s prospects after the “Wilderness Years” of 1979–1997 and won it the largest parliamentary majority in its history seems ill advised at best.

As Daley put it, the party “has apparently given up on — or lost any understanding of — the wider electorate that once gave it a succession of general election victories.”