Despite High Poll Numbers, Britain’s Labour Party Divided

Party leader Ed Miliband has yet to reconcile centrist and leftists in his party.

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)

Britain’s opposition party is expected to rebound from a crushing general election defeat almost three years ago next week when polls predict that it will win a plurality of the votes in local elections. Yet the party looks restless. It has yet to come to terms with the centrist policies of former prime minister Tony Blair.

Blair expunged the radical, Marxist elements from his party to appeal to middle-class voters, especially in England’s traditionally more conservative south. In doing so, he returned Labour to power after almost twenty years of Conservative Party rule and helped it stay in government for a decade.

When Gordon Brown, Blair’s longtime chancellor, lost reelection for the Labour Party in 2010, leftwingers felt vindicated. They elected Ed Miliband instead of his “Blairite” brother David to the party leadership that year.

Despite David Miliband’s resignation from Parliament earlier this month, Labour’s ideological struggle remains unresolved. The Telegraph‘s Dan Hodges cited one shadow cabinet member on Friday as admitting that the party is more divided than it has been since the 1980s. “With the collapse of the New Labour consensus,” he wrote, “a fissure has opened in Labour’s ranks.”

In broad terms, it is represented by two factions. Those who want to build on what they see as New Labour’s achievements. And those who want to see them consigned to the dustbin of history.

The former advocate modest health and welfare reforms, items that account for a third of state spending; the latter see any attempt at reform as “a capitulation in the face of Tory efforts to stigmatize those on welfare.” The former argue that for the party to regain credibility, it should demonstrate fiscal restraint; the latter tout classical Keynesian stimulus as alternative to the right’s austerity.

Blair himself cautioned against a lurch to the left in the New Statesman this month, urging his party to be more than a “repository for people’s anger” in “highlighting the cruel consequences of the Conservative policies on welfare and representing the disadvantaged and vulnerable.”

It means, for example, that we don’t tack right on immigration and Europe and tack left on tax and spending.

Which is precisely what Miliband has done, according to The Economist.

Derided early in his leadership as “Red Ed,” he has since pandered to anti-immigration sentiment and even flirted with Euroskepticism. But on the one issue that the Labour leader appears to have thought through, economic policy, Mr Miliband is clearly to the left of every British government since 1979. Inspired by North European social democrats, he wants to end quarterly reporting and introduce new regulations on apprenticeships, as well as regional investment banks and a bold industrial policy to bring jobs back […]

Such ideas may hold merit, the liberal newspaper argues, but it is unclear how Labour would pay for them, especially as it opposes many of the coalition government’s budget cuts. Miliband’s only concrete suggestion so far has been to raise taxes on the wealthy and their homes — “which points to a second problem with his plans for national renewal.” Miliband is pandering to class resentment.

In a speech to a Labour conference in 2011, Miliband chastised “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 their living standards “squeezed by runaway rewards at the top.” Such anticapitalist rhetoric doesn’t sit well with middle income British voters who may share some of Miliband’s grievances but tend to have more faith in the free-market system than most other Westerners. Just 25 percent of Britons believes that economic benefits have “not at all” been distributed fairly in recent years, relatively less than Americans and other European peoples, according to a GlobeScan survey conducted last year.

Miliband laments that despite David Cameron’s supposed overhaul, it is “the same old Tory Party” in power, robbing the poor of benefits while cutting tax for the rich. But under his leadership, Labour increasingly seems back to where it was before Tony Blair reined in its most leftist instincts.

The Telegraph‘s Janet Daley observed as much in December 2011 when she wrote, “The party once again belongs to its hard core adherents. It has apparently given up on — or lost any understanding of — the wider electorate that once gave it a succession of general election victories.”

Voters’ wariness of Conservative budget cutting, which the left has successfully portrayed as “austerity” even if British government spending is growing every year, may have improved Labour’s poll numbers but when those voters are faced with the choice of electing an ineffectual leader in 2015 who oscillates between unifying “one nation” rhetoric and hard left policy proposals, they might well reconsider.