Calls for an economic alternative have grown over the past 12 months, and following his keynote party conference speech ‘Red Ed’ is looking more far-sighted than far-left, writes Rob Fuller
There are three ways to judge a political leader. First, judge him on what he believes; second, on his actions; and third, on whether or not he can ultimately win an election and return his party to power.
It has now been a year since Ed Miliband won the leadership of the Labour Party and, given the manner of his victory, it is hardly surprising that he has faced criticism from across the political spectrum. Led by The Sun, the right-wing tabloid press branded him ‘Red Ed’ because of the support he received from trade unions, and his perceived radical left-wing agenda. Within his own ranks, he was seen as disloyal for running against his older brother David, and perceived to be ineffective for focusing on bringing about an end to the New Labour era rather than an end to the Coalition government. But one year on, is this criticism valid, or is Labour better off with Ed after all?
In order to accurately evaluate Miliband’s first year in office, we must consider the events which have shaped Labour’s first year in opposition. The unrelenting media narrative has been that Labour is a party in decline; Ed has been an instant failure as leader and the party has lost its’ way. When it came to May’s local elections, the SNP swept to victory in Scotland when many had expected a Labour win. Miliband was lambasted for Labour’s apparent failure.
However, the triumph of the SNP was not the direct result of mistakes made by a dysfunctional Labour Party – none of our political parties have been able to arrest the rise of a party that believes the United Kingdom is on its last legs as a nation. The rise of the SNP began long before Miliband took the helm last September, and in any case the anti-Ed narrative ignored the massive victories Labour won (returning to government in the Welsh Assembly and winning huge numbers of council seats across England). Indeed, almost every poll since Miliband became leader has seen Labour hold a convincing lead over the government.
So what exactly does Miliband believe? The night before the leadership election, Ed came to the University of Manchester as the underdog to answer the questions of our students. He was criticised for a number of bold things he said on that day. He said that New Labour was dead and that capitalism was broken; that the economic system had to be made better; that we need our system to work for the people who make up our society rather than the financial institutions that govern it.
For those on the right, such statements were a red rag to a bull – to them, it sounded like dangerous left-wing ideology. Blairities considered his views sacrilegious. How could the party abandon the winning strategy of New Labour, with its unabashed commitment to free market economics? But the Blairite agenda is outdated and simplistic. New Labour IS dead, regardless of what its supporters say. It died when it was dumped from power last May. It was fatally wounded from the moment that the unregulated financial system, which it so proudly endorsed, collapsed.
On the economy, Miliband has been proved right. Austerity measures undertaken by the government have failed to kickstart a recovery; indeed, the economy has worsened over the last 12 months.
Admittedly, Miliband did not walk into University Place and propose a striking new doctrine that evening. There was no huge ideological overhaul, no bold programme for government. However, he got his party thinking about a post-New Labour politics, and this is crucial; it took three leaders prior to David Cameron and over a decade of opposition before the Conservatives managed to re-brand and re-energise – Miliband has begun this arduous process in just a few months. In this context, Ed’s reorganisation and intellectual stimulation of his party seems positively heroic.
None of mattered to his unrelenting critics until the phone hacking scandal erupted this summer. The government was crippled by its previous support for News International and Cameron’s own cosy relationship with the key players in what now seems to be a deeply suspect organisation. With renewed moral authority, Miliband managed to take Parliament by storm. Labour submitted a motion condemning phone hacking, and the government was forced to support it. For a brief moment, Labour seized the agenda and looked like a party that might be ready to govern again.
The jury is still out on Ed Miliband. His opponents may yet prove correct, but this first year has been nowhere near as bad as many feared. Miliband has quickly put Labour back on the road to recovery. Contrary to tabloid spin, Labour has not lurched to the far left – it has merely abandoned the failing New Labour project. He might not be on his way to winning an election just yet, but to me it seems that Labour may well be better off with Ed after all.