This tide is already changing Britain’s political landscape
As looming cuts start to weaken the coalition, Ed Miliband and the TUC are riding a wave of pressure for change
Seumas Milne guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 15 September 2010 21.00 BST
No wonder ministers are getting jittery. Barely four months into the coalition, the political landscape has already been transformed, and the honeyed days of May are a fading memory. What should have been a triumphant party conference season for the Tories and their Liberal Democrat allies now looks more like a trial to be endured.
Support for David Cameron’s Conservatives is down to 39%, only two points ahead of Labour, when the opposition party hasn’t even yet elected its new leader. The Lib Dems have dropped to 14%. Crucially, the coalition is losing the argument about its central programme of cuts, even before it has announced them, let alone started carrying them out.
The latest Populus polling shows three-quarters of the public oppose both the scale and speed of the planned cuts. That also reflects a growing weight of economic opinion that slashing spending now risks deepening the threat of economic stagnation or a double dip – and actually widening the deficit.
When you have champions of financial rectitude such as the International Monetary Fund and OECD warning of the international risk of an “explosion of social unrest” and arguing for a new fiscal stimulus if growth continues to falter, it’s hardly surprising that tensions in the cabinet over next month’s spending review are spilling over.
Once it becomes clear what those cuts are and who they will hit hardest – let alone if the economy tanks again – the Lib Dems in particular face political immolation. When they meet in Liverpool next week to celebrate their first taste of office for 65 years, Nick Clegg will naturally hail a triumph of liberalism. But growing grassroots revulsion, which looks certain to explode sooner or later, will clearly find a voice next week in what is still a democratic party.
For the TUC, on the other hand, meeting in Manchester this week, the threatened onslaught has brought a new sense of purpose to a movement largely anaesthetised under New Labour. Of course the unions have been subject to a barrage of hysterical abuse from the usual press suspects for daring to pledge support for industrial action against job, pay and conditions cuts if members vote for it.
But all that dinosaurs-and-bully-boys talk looks increasingly like the stuff of a time warp. The TUC showed this week it has rediscovered the role not only of representing members but of speaking for millions as the centre of a national campaign, uniting service users and providers, workforces and communities.
Trade unions already are Cameron’s “big society” in real life. And unlike the government’s praetorian guard in the media, ministers like Francis Maude, who declined to join the attack on the union movement, understand that it may yet prove to be a dangerous opponent.
So, clearly, does the Bank of England governor, Mervyn King, who told the TUC yesterday that bankers and policymakers such as himself – rather than public service workers – were responsible for the crisis, while assuring trade unionists there was “plenty of room for disagreement” about how and when to reduce the deficit.
The same political tide that has shifted the landscape around the coalition and the unions has already had its impact on Labour. The party leadership campaign began with the establishment candidate and best-known face, David Miliband, as the undisputed favourite, backed by the media and the Blairites’ money and machine.
Nearly four months of campaigning later, YouGov’s poll at the weekend put his brother Ed narrowly ahead on second preferences – and, if anything, the signs are that the former climate change secretary’s support may have strengthened in the days since. The tightness of the contest reflects the fact that Ed Miliband has caught a wave of opinion determined to see the party move on from New Labour and its discredited agenda of triangulation, social authoritarianism and market orthodoxy.
Whatever the result next week there was no mistaking David Miliband’s anger at the TUC hustings as he insisted that only he could take Labour back to power, while joking bitterly about his support for the alternative vote system – which could now deliver the leadership to his brother. Back at Westminster, some MPs complain about being “stalked” by the elder Miliband, but changing expectations mean floaters are, if anything, switching towards his rival.
If the former foreign secretary does narrowly win after all, he will take over a party where the ground has shifted decisively against New Labour shibboleths, where his rivals now command powerful constituencies and where the battle over cuts will shape the political agenda. Tony Blair may call David Miliband “my Wayne Rooney”, but the campaign has forced him to move off the Blair script and a Labour party he leads would be a very different outfit from the control freaks’ playground of the past 16 years.
But if Ed Miliband wins, the change will be far more significant. New Labour will be seen to have been rejected. He will have won despite the media: while most national newspapers threw their weight behind his brother, only the People backed Ed Miliband. He will be able to lead a campaign against the government and appeal to the five million voters Labour has lost since 1997 far less encumbered by the burden of the Blair-Brown years.
He would also face multiple problems. His elder brother would have to be reconciled, his rivals accommodated, opposition from the new shadow cabinet defused – and that’s before the party’s structures could be opened up and new policies embraced. Most of all he would need to direct his appeal to the country and the real middle and lower income Britain that is the key to a Labour revival, while seeing off the absurd but certain line of attack that he represents a “lurch to the left”.
Whatever the outcome, a new centre of gravity is emerging in British politics which Labour – and the trade unions, for that matter – can tap into. The common view that governments will always be in power for more than one term comes from assuming that the recent history of the boom years will repeat itself in a time of crisis. In fact, as both Miliband brothers argue, there’s no reason to believe that the coalition can’t be forced from power in five years – or before.
16 Sep 2010 – 10:04 by jbcentre