Saturday 31 July 2010

Ed Miliband Visits Stoke

Ed Miliband flew into The Potteries this afternoon for a question and answer session this afternoon organised by Stoke North Labour Party. About a hundred members turned up to listen to his views on everything from gender balance in the shadow cabinet to Cameron's diplomatic gaffe on Pakistan. But was he any good? Was he convincing?

His stump speech was framed in terms of the familiar nostrums. He ably ticked all the boxes: politics can make a difference ... politics should be about more than management ... Labour needs to listen more ... the leadership election provides us with a blank page ... etc.

Ed said Labour did some things in government we should be proud of, but it didn't do enough. On the economy, he believed the party came too late to the idea of having an industrial policy. The experience of government had taught them markets alone cannot be left to create jobs because it never will in sufficient quantities, therefore the state has the responsibility to fill this gap. He also knew millions of working class people were turned off from Labour because of its chummy relationship with business. Ed acknowledged this was a less a relationship and more a case of business's lording it over the party. In a New Labourish rehtorical flourish, he said if workers can expect fairness not favours from Labour, then it should be the same for business.

Warming to his theme, he thought New Labour was an overreaction to the 1980s. The managerial style, the centralised leadership under Blair and Brown, it was all top down. The new leadership must learn to listen to its members to avoid the heavy handed mistakes of the
ancien regime. This means a proper party conference with serious debate, members' input into policy making, and the inculcation of a sense that members have influence on the party's direction. Part and parcel of this is rebuilding of the trade union movement. He said he was proud to be nominated by so many unions, but thought it was a real tragedy not enough people were in them. If he was voted leader he would work with the rest of the labour movement to make them more relevant.

The meeting then moved to questions. I won't bore readers with the ins and outs of every query, but will stick to the main points.

On the coalition, he said when the Tories are in government, they behave as if they own the place. When Labour are in, they feel like squatters. But the situation now is different to the 80s. Back then Labour were relatively powerless to stop the Tories. But because Cameron governs in coalition, the LibDems are particularly vulnerable. Our job is to make them feel like an endangered species. They've got to feel as if deposing Nick Clegg is the only way to save themselves from electoral oblivion. If we are successful in keeping up this pressure, the coalition will fall.

On parliamentary selection (obviously a controversial issue in Stoke), because it demotivates members and can drive them out of the party, he was asked if he would give an undertaking to stop the imposition of candidates by the central party? Ed replied the impositions happened because the 'special rule' period had been applied for longer than usual. To avoid this happening again, CLPs need to select their candidates earlier. If MPs are going to step down, they owe their CLPs the courtesy to give them plenty of time to organise a selection process.

On the deficit, the questioner felt the Tories had enjoyed a free ride at the despatch box and they were using the debt to railroad though an ideologically-driven cuts agenda. Ed replied that when the Tories have completed their spending review in the autumn we have to be ready with an alternative to their draconian cuts. We have to challenge them on their rewrite of history: this was a crisis of the banking sector and not the public sector.

On foreign policy, though he avoided direct discussion of Iraq, Ed said that under Blair New Labour mistook the alliance with the USA as the need to agree with Bush's on everything. Britain needs to disagree with America when necessary, and also be more willing to criticise Israel for its actions (in fact, he went as far to say Britain and the EU should not upgrade its relations with Israel (whatever that means) until it has made real progress on Gaza).

As a trade unionist I was particularly interested to hear his opinions on workplace rights. I got the impression from elsewhere that Ed more or less supported the status quo. If he did hold this position, then he's recently moved on it. He believed all industrial legislation needs to be reviewed: he thought the labyrinthine rules on strike ballots were utterly absurd. He was also for union access to workplaces as of right, a strengthening of rules on unfair dismissal and redundancy, and get away from how the rest of the world views Britain: as a country that hires and fires in cavalier fashion.

Lastly, Trotskyist readers of a certain pedigree might be interested to learn Ed was fully in favour of Young Labour having more independence and the right to take its own positions on things. This is necessary if we are to build a culture where the party can trust itself, and a movement fully in touch with the concerns and struggles outside of parliament.

This meeting pleasantly surprised me. In contrast to gloomy comment on other blogs, I thought Ed Miliband's stall was solidly labourist. For example, whereas Ed Balls combines a Keynesian orientation to the economy with a near-Powellite view on immigration, Ed Miliband eloquently argued that immigration was a lightning rod for discontent. An economic programme that places jobs and house building at the core of a coherent industrial strategy would undermine the antipathy large sections of Labour voters feel toward immigrant workers. Sure, it's not the solidly socialist programme some demand as the condition for taking out Labour membership, but it's a clear social democratic break with the Third Way/neoliberal claptrap that went before.

Speaking to various folk afterwards, more than a few members said it reaffirmed their decisions to back Ed. It's fair to say he picked up some converts too. Speaking to a local leading trade unionist, he said if Ed Miliband won his (sizable) branch would join the party
en masse. Of course, they should join now to help make sure he does. And again, the atmosphere was convivial, friendly, and there was plenty of time after for socialising.

Whether one supports him or not, if Ed Miliband wins the leadership contest Labour will be a more interesting, more gratifying place to be. Why not
come aboard?


Jonkarra said...

Hmm interesting but I don't get a good feel about either of the Ed's. Ed Miliband seems to be more form than function. I don't see him yet as a credible leader that can take the fight to the tories. Kinda sorry I missed the meeting as seeing him in person might have given me a more accurate impression of him than the media. I was reading an article in the guardian the other day that very much trashed his social skills. Despite what you have written think I will still be supporting Miliband snr aka David.

Unknown said...

With the two main leadership candidates there's a definite sense of their politics being defined by those clustering around them, rather than by what they themselves are saying.

I can detect little difference between Milibands, but a chasm between the respective supporters. There are exceptions, like the moderates backing Ed and radicals backing David. But I do worry that whoever wins there will be a sense of grievance.

Richard Johnson said...

Goodness me James! Ed Miliband is the radical in comparison to the moderate, unreformed Blairite David! Ed is a "radical" in the sense that he is willing to put values back at the heart of our party. This doesn't mean we're going back to 1983 but I sense from Ed is that he is the man and the leader to win the political argument convincingly and reach out to those who left Labour, turned their backs on Labour and attract those who have not voted Labour. Ed can forge a social democratic agenda that is realistic, credible, principled yet pragmatic to defeat the ConDems.

Unknown said...

Richard, read this speech on the jobs deficit: It could easily have been made by Ed or any of the other candidates for leadership, for that matter. What I'm saying is - I can't see that the party's direction will be determined by its leader.

Gary Elsby said...

Why didn't anyone ask any real questions?
The hoards of potential new members in Tunstall couldn't wait for an answer to the Israeli/EC question?

Brother S said...

Andy Burnham had a pop over the weekend about golden boys from London being parachuted into regional constituencies. Lol!

Housey said...

What does any of the potential leaders think about Labour councils carrying out the ConDem cuts?

Or about the privatisation of the NHS that their government continued?

Where's the fight in Labour for even the most minor opposition to cuts and privatisation? Or is it just about cuts a year later and privatisation a little slower to companies that fund Labour rather than the Tories? Is that the best the labour movement in this country can aspire to, or are socialists remaining in Labour going to try to pass binding resolutions against cuts and privatisation?

Gary Elsby said...

To answer your point, Housey, Labour will cut under the guise of 'Coalition'.
Labour members will cheer Labour, knock on doors and telephone everyone to death.
True Socialists are fighting everything.
It's a laugh to read 'the Cabinet' says this or that in Stoke, but Labour (cabinet) says another.
This is a Labour led coalition and a lie is a lie.

Brother S:
Miliband cries that the special selections panel was "in place too long".
Burnham yelps that parachutes are "wrong".

Truth is that CLPs should choose, as they always have done.
Puppet Parliamentarians give give puppy answers and get a treat.
Full of hobby projects and no substance for the workers.

Phil said...

Gary, further questions were asked on manufacturing, getting young people into politics, privatisation of Royal Mail, vote reform, the environment, the NHS, and care - the sorts of things millions of working class people talk and worry about. I'm sure, if it could, the meeting would apologise for not asking the forensic and well formulated questions we all know you're capable of.

Phil said...

Thomas, there are thousands of Labour party members involved in campaigns against the cuts, some in community campaigns, some in their workplaces. True, they're not as visible as SP or SWP activists, but then again they don't need to advertise their party affiliations in the same way.

As for currents against the cuts, obviously the LRC are against. And on the soft left, so are Compass. Ken Livingstone has said he would use the London mayoralty to resist the cuts. And yesterday Tony Benn, other Labour MPs and various worthies launched a campaign, and the Labour-affiliated unions are directly in the firing line. Just for the record, Tristram Hunt is currently campaigning against the closure of a local swimming pool and school.

While these might not meet your criteria of simon pure anti-cuts activity, millions of working class people are looking to Labour for an alternative - something the "vanguard" of the class fails to understand.

Gary Elsby said...

I note the questions you now say were asked, forensically and intrusive and uncomfortable as I know you'd put them.
I also note that Central votes David!!

I take it his answers were crap as the unsuccessful Minister he was.

Phil said...

By what standards are you judging him as a "failed Minister". In fact, as this post shows, his record as minister for climate change was one of the most radical things about the last government.