The British electorate is intimately aware of three striking facts about Ed Miliband: His Shakespearean usurping of his brother, his striking resemblance to Wallace (of Wallace & Gromit fame) and the way he is affectionately referred to among the popular press as ‘Red Ed’, the man supposedly putting the final nail into the ‘New Labour’ coffin. The last fact is perhaps of the most political significance, although it is a moot point as to whether the British electorate would elect a cheese-loving Prime Minister with plasticine for DNA.
Throughout its existence as a political concept the idea of ‘New Labour’ has been subject to hyperbole both from the media and from the Labour party itself. Ed Miliband’s election to the Labour leadership has reignited the internal debate within the Labour party; does the electorate want a Labour party firmly placed within the centre ground of British politics, or should there be a transition towards more traditional Labour thinking? Although the Daily Telegraph pronounced ‘The Death of New Labour’ upon Ed’s election, the future direction of the Labour party is far from clear. Only 24% of the electorate are fully expectant of a move leftwards, with an almost equal amount expecting no change. Prediction is the most dishonest form of journalism, and conventional wisdom from the conservative press is often plain wrong.
Those who define a winning election strategy as a centrist election strategy may find the centre ground shifting and adapting in tumultuous political and economic times. In Tony Blair’s memoir ‘A Journey’ he puts Labours election defeat squarely at the feet of Brown’s departure from New Labour, arguing that ‘if we departed a millimetre from New Labour, we were going to be in trouble’. It is widely acknowledged as fact within the British political landscape that it is impossible to be elected without ‘centrist’ voters- yet it must be asked whether this truism holds in British politics as it stands in 2010. Currently there is largely an acceptance among the coalition and its plan for economic austerity. But already in polling support for the cuts is wavering, as people are increasingly hit fast and hard.
The news that university tuition fees look likely to be on the rise again and student debt is becoming ever more crippling is just part of a number of measures that will likely turn large sections of society against the coalition. Ed Miliband will be tempted to oppose wholesale government cuts, and come out increasing in support of strikes. He has already said he cannot rule out large-scale support of strike action, and told his conference that “it is wrong that a banker can earn more in a day than a care worker can in a year.” Such left-wing rhetoric will potentially become increasingly popular with a damaged electorate, but it is uncertain whether it will be followed up by clear, bold policy. The reality, after all, of creating a wage cap based upon say, 200 times the earnings of a care worker would be potentially the most socialist manifesto from a mainstream political party in a century.
Instead it is likely that Ed will try to mimic Obama, just without the iconoclastic charisma (indeed with very little charisma at all). By aiming to differ from the coalition consensus via a shift to the left there would be ample opportunity to convert disillusioned Liberal Democrats and vacuum up votes that Labour lost to apathy in previous elections. However, it is entirely possible a lurch to the left could lead to comparisons with William Hague in 1997. Facing a prolonged period out of office there is a tendency to pander to a party’s core base and its media support, creating a calamitous unelectable opposition that is no longer focused upon the British public and regaining office. Harriet Harman called the Labour party conference ‘historic’, and it is difficult to disagree. However, it is a dishonest journalist who acts as a soothsayer and predicts the future of the Labour party. In truth, even Ed probably has no idea.