Ed Miliband: Behind the Party Reform, a Quiet Populism

On Saturday 1 March at a special conference in Canning Town, London, the Labour Party voted for fundamental historic reform in its relationship to the trade unions, and the way it elects its leader. It is being compared in importance to Tony Blair’s abolition of Clause IV in 1995 which pulled the party into the twentieth century as it prepared for the twenty-first, abandoning the party’s long-held, deep-seated, and utterly ignored commitment to the full-scale nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. Blair’s reform had a massive effect upon the party, helping to catapult it back into power in 1997 after 18 years in divided opposition. And ever since, it has been a leitmotif for modernisation, through John Smith’s efforts to create one-member-one-vote (OMOV), and now to Miliband’s conference of March 1 2014, voting for the Collin’s Review reformsby an 86% landslide vote of the unions and affiliated organisations and constituency parties. What started out as a bust-up between Miliband and Unite over Falkirk, and Unite’s alleged packing the local constituency with union members for the selection of the party’s candidate, has turned into a personal triumph for Miliband, casting him into the Blair mould of the visionary leader, insightful, right before his time, and carrying his party with him, and completing the historic task begun by Blair in 1995. In many ways, the two moments are indeed comparable, but in some ways not. In fact, their dissimilarities are clues to their real function.

Blair’s Clause IV reform was significant and consequential, but completely symbolic. Not even the Attlee government of 1945 nationalised on the Soviet scale of the spirit of Clause IV. By 1995, Margaret Thatcher had privatised much of companies that Attlee has privatised; telecommunications, energy, the railways, and so on. The real significance of the abolition of Clause IV was not what it told us about the commanding heights, but what it told us about the commander, Tony Blair. The risk he took in taking on the redundant but near-sacred text of Clause IV gave him, as leader, an exalted status in relation to his party; but also in relation to the public, and, with hindsight, to Labour history and Labour’s future.

Miliband’s achievement on Saturday 1 March was not only symbolic, but also practical, and because practical more risky, and because more risky, the victory was even more symbolic. The practical consequences could be immediate. Delegates speaking against the motion warned of the potentially catastrophic consequences to Labour’s finances, if it were in future only to receive the dues from trade unionists who opt in to the party. Longer term consequences could be, again, as the minority delegates argued, a gradual but dramatic loosening if not severing of the relationship with the unions, and – through a kind of atomisation of the party ‘will’ in the name of democracy – the loss of the truly collective identity and endeavour of the party, diluted even further by the party’s intention to reach out to a new category of party supporters and sympathisers beyond the current membership. These things may come to pass, although the overwhelming backing of the trade unions for the reform suggests that they won’t; in fact, union clout may even be strengthened as the party will have to rely upon the unions’ generosity even more. As regards party democracy OMOV will – for now – remain within the control of the party machine as the parliamentary party will nominate the candidates. One day that too will be contested.

However, as with Clause IV, this whole affair is less about the party than about Ed Miliband and his leadership. The ‘Clause IV moment’ as it came to be called after 1995, was about the creation of Blair’s prime ministerial ‘character’: a man who courageously brought the crazier elements of the party to heel, and prepared it for government through public approval and his own leadership. Only time (14 months) will tell if Ed’s 1 March performance was indeed a Clause IV moment, for, beyond the practical issues, these reforms are about Miliband’s own leadership status.

The vote itself, a thumping 86%, is a major endorsement of a reform instigated by his own reflections (on Falkirk) in July 2013. On Saturday, entered the hall with accompanying music, clips of the party’s history (and union origins), and clips of himself speaking in Brighton. After an introduction by the conference chair, Anna Eagle, he opened with a speech – no notes, reminiscent of his Manchester and Brighton speeches (2013, 2013) – replete with all the humour, seriousness, and emotionalism of his memorable conference speeches, the whole shown on two large screens. He remained on the stage throughout the two hours of ‘debates’ i.e. 3-minute interventions of delegates for and against. The overwhelming majority of delegates were in favour, not only of the proposed reforms but of the reformer, naming, congratulating, giving allegiance to, recognising the insightfulness of the man sitting on the stage listening; he, turned to listen to each speaker, his profile to the audience. His status was enhanced by his listening respectfully to his few critics; the one or two admonitions (three, in fact, from the leaders of Unite, Unison, and the GMB) who came close to ‘personal’ warnings; but these were few, and brief, and, one could argue, being ticked off by Len McLuskey simply proved Miliband’s point. Both rhetorically and visually, therefore, this was the leader’s reform, and the conference, therefore, a demonstration of the leader’s leadership.

Finally, the rhetoric itself – in his opening speech and closing remarks – were populist, the classic rhetoric of the rally leader. Populism can be as restrained and calm as Ed Miliband. It is no less populist for that. His desired rather than actual audience/constituency on 1 March was not the squeezed middle, the teachers and social workers, the chattering classes, but the legions of the disenfranchised or self-disenfranchised of low paid workers, ambulance drivers, women, care workers, the disabled, families in poverty, the unemployed and underemployed, and, as Miliband told his audience, a non-votong Mum called Tracy. The populist tone also informed his depiction of his adversaries; the Tories were hearltless, sexist, Eton and Harrow bullies, the Lib Dems pathetic. The speech teemed with references to himself, his envisioned future, whose guiding virtue was justice. Miliband’s speech was personalised too in its pedagogical telling of some home truths to the party: that if it did not change, both it and politics itself would become ‘an empty stadium’. There was also, as we have said, all the humour and emotion of his best speeches (including yet another reference to his father, an artful display of intimacy with the audience). He also reminded his audience too that his decision last summer was the origin of the reforms and therefore, implicitly, the conference itself was the realisation of that personal choice. And, in a classic populist rhetorical device he urged his party to become or become again a ‘movement’ rather than a party. Such, and his relationship to it were captured in: ‘If I am elected Prime Minister, I want to change this country, but I can only do it with a movement behind me’.

If Labour win in 2015, the special conference at ExCel in Canning Town on 1 March will be seen retrospectively as the moment Ed Miliband became the hero of the party, the leader who unleashed the popular voices of disillusioned and excluded Britain, transformed through the party/leader’s action into the forces of progress leading to the the left’s conquest of power. In just over a year we shall find out if it worked.

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