One’s first reaction to Ed Miliband’s abolition of shadow cabinet elections is that this is a step away from party democracy. But on closer reflection this is a shrewd, and radical, break with tradition which makes a lot of sense in current circumstances. Ed is faced with a shadow cabinet in which only 4 of its 19 members voted for him in the leadership election 9 months ago and which has shown itself signally unwilling to accept the message of that leadership campaign that the party wanted a change of direction. A leader voted in on that mandate can be expected to take the necessary steps to deliver what he promised. But there’s more to this than meets the eye.
From year zero in 1994, as Blair and his followers then saw it, the Blairite political machine immediately set about transforming the composition of the PLP into an impregnable stronghold which would support its leader in all circumstances. They succeeded spectacularly. Preferred candidates for the Blairite New Labour faction were given a head start in all parliamentary selections via the network of regional officers, which the machine dominated. They were given advance access to membership lists (the electoral college), they were strongly promoted behind the scenes by discreedt pressure from the regional office, they were protected against rival candidates at the shortlisting, and the handling of postal votes often turned out to their advantage.
As a result, of the 350 Labour MPs elected in 1997, perhaps 250 could be broadly described as New Labour devotees. By 2010 that number was reduced to around 150 out of a total of 250. New Labour was greatly attenuated both numerically and ideologically, but crucially still clung on as a bloc able to thwart any significant shift away from the Blairite adherence to privatisation, deregulation, unfettered markets, corporate interests, and inequality. Any leader committed to change course from the disastrous policies that lost 5 million votes between 1997 and 2010 would have no alternative but to break with this cycle of decline. That is exactly what Ed is now doing.
Contrary to the usual media-driven drivel, Ed Miliband is not a proto-leftist nor a Red Ed caricature. He’s a thoroughly decent man with genuinely radical instincts who wants to lead Britain out of the dead-end into which its’s beeing driven by Osborne stagnation and Cameron market obsession. He has a readiness to listen, a tolerance of factions within the party which he dearly wants to heal, but if need be a steely ruthlessness to cut through blockages which frustrate the party’s advance, as he is now displaying.
The party desperately needs refreshing both structurally – to restore its suppressed internal democracy – and ideologically, both to set out the clear alternative vision to the broken neoliberal capitalism as well as to appeal emotionally and practically to the squeezed middle and abandoned working class base. That is no easy task which cannot be rushed, but EM remains by far the party’s best hope to secure this objective and this latest move will bring it a lot closer.