Le Monde diplomatique
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Ralph Miliband made his name in the 1960s and 70s as a Marxist academic who was strongly critical of the way in which Labour, as he saw it, had been co-opted and assimilated by the power structures of capitalist society. In the eyes of Miliband Snr, the Labour Party had smothered genuine socialist radicalism, with its reformist agenda allowing capitalism to perpetuate itself rather than be subjected to substantive change and eventual replacement.
Miliband’s sons, by contrast, worked as advisors and then as ministers in the party’s most rightwing incarnation yet, Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s New Labour. This essentially accepted the neo-liberal economic model bequeathed by Margaret Thatcher, allowing the British economy to become ever more reliant on a lightly regulated financial sector. It left Britain uniquely exposed to the banking crisis that began in 2007 and reached near-cataclysmic proportions in September 2008.
The crash and resulting recession caused Britain’s national debt to rise sharply from what had been historically unremarkable levels. The rightwing Conservative opposition - led by David Cameron (the son of a banking family) and cheered on by the corporate media - homed in on the deficit in order to blame the country’s economic woes on the perils of overspending "big government" rather than the failure of financial "free markets". The election campaign of 2010 was fought on the battleground of public sector cuts, and Labour went down to its second worst defeat since 1918.
Following the resignation of Gordon Brown, five candidates competed for the Labour leadership, but only the Miliband brothers were ever in serious contention. David, foreign secretary in the last government, had the backing of the party’s rightwing establishment, several millionaire donors and Tony Blair himself. His refusal to "trash the record" only served to reinforce his image as the continuity candidate. In contrast, Ed, former minister for energy and climate, foregrounded themes of change and renewal, implied a return to mild European-style social democracy and distanced himself from the Iraq war and financial deregulation.
The manner of Ed’s victory allowed his enemies to amplify this narrative. Although he had won a clear plurality of first preference votes, the extra weighting given to MPs and party members narrowed the result; though his brother won pluralities in those sections of the college, Ed gained victory by winning far more votes from members of affiliated organisations and trade unions. In Britain’s political culture, there was no chance of this being portrayed as what it was: the leader of a political party chosen by thousands of ordinary people on low and middle incomes. Instead, the result was widely portrayed as tainted by union involvement, with Ed urged to immediately demonstrate that he was not beholden to the barons of organised labour.
Had David won, it’s unlikely any similar questions would have been asked about the millionaire donors that inflated his campaign war chest far beyond anything his rivals could hope to match. Just as the overwhelming support the Conservatives received from big business before the general election was seen, most notably by the rightwing press, as the definitive mark of credibility, with no thought of illegitimate or corrupt influence so much as discussed. Such are the democratic values of a capitalist society, as Ralph Miliband understood very well.
In October, the government will unveil its Comprehensive Spending Review, a classic act of neo-liberal shock therapy, with cuts of 25-40% proposed to departmental budgets. This is the centrepiece of the government’s plan to eliminate the bulk of the national debt in five years through eye-watering austerity measures, which authoritative studies have shown will bear down disproportionately on the poorest members of society. Respected Keynesian economists such as the Nobel laureates Joseph Stiglitz and Paul Krugman have warned that this draconian fiscal tightening risks repeating the worst policy mistakes of the 1930s, destroying demand and causing either a second recession or a prolonged period of stagnation coupled with soaring levels of unemployment.
The question is how Labour will respond. Under Gordon Brown, it went into the election campaign offering its own deficit reduction plan which, though less extreme than Cameron’s, was by its own admission deeper and tougher than anything imposed by Thatcher. David Miliband pledged to continue this policy, but Brown’s former protégé Ed Balls, another leadership candidate, proposed challenging the deficit consensus that had taken hold of the political class, arguing instead that the pace of deficit reduction should be much slower, and based more on growth than on fiscal austerity.
Ed Miliband was careful not to commit himself to either position, though he hinted that he would amend Labour’s existing policy to change the balance from spending cuts towards progressive tax rises. If he chooses someone on the right of the party as shadow finance minister, his powerful enemies will perhaps be mollified, at least for the moment, while many of his supporters will be disillusioned. If he selects Balls, and a Keynesian challenge to the consensus, he will be giving a strong indication to the media and to the right of his party that he will not be a leader that they can intimidate easily. If he does take this path, the departure of his brother from front-line politics, removing the only credible pretender to the throne, may strengthen his position in the long-term.