UK Politics


This is a guest post by Ben Harris

We are informed by the New Statesman that the temptation for Ed Miliband proved too much last Wednesday evening when he used the fact that he hadn’t been in government for most of the recent era to lay out hitherto unseen deep and principled variances of opinion to the leadership of the party, and most specifically to his brother. Particularly pointed, given the fact that David was foreign secretary and regularly defended Labour’s (in my view strong and progressive) record on foreign affairs, including with respect to Iraq. I didn’t want to pass judgment until I had seen it from the horse’s mouth, so to speak, but he repeated similar at last night’s Fabian hustings. A regular populist party trick, one might say.

Ed Miliband can express himself any way he wants, of course. And he can outline any future course for the party that he wishes. But I feel a vague sense of disquiet, despite the fact that plenty of sensible people support him, as evidenced by the good friends I met at the hustings this evening who said as much. So let’s take a look at the psychology of that increasingly rare beast – a heartfelt Blairite, the True Believer. Somewhat like the Japanese soldier still at his post in the Burmese jungle as 1946 approaches, some will uncharitably say.

Of course, in politics there is always the desire to reinvent the wheel, or the tendency to rebirth and renewal as I think we are meant to term it, more flatteringly. To leave behind inconvenient facts, to claim the gleaming mantle of freshness, of newness. This piranha-like need to be able to junk past associations and commitments and beliefs is a sadness. But it is politics.

Nonetheless, when I shuffled, slowly, leaden-footed, in the direction of Bethnal Green station at some unearthly hour on the morning of Friday the sixth of May, 2005, it would never have occurred to me that I would feel moved to write something along these lines one day. That I had spent days and weeks trudging Tower Hamlets, threatened with death and assailed by eggs and stones, to have my sacrifice to the movement contextualised to nought. My mood was as acrid as the cigarette I smoked on the way to the tube. Almost as though the latter were a poorly-scripted metaphor for the bitter, bitter taste of defeat…

But we did know what we had been fighting for. An open, tolerant and pluralistic movement of labour. Against a populist rabble-rouser using fear, victimhood and communalism to manipulate some of the most vulnerable people in the United Kingdom. For Oona and against George. For social democracy and against reaction.

And why bring that up now? Old history, water under the bridge.

Because of this desire, this old inevitability, this severing of past associations. The accusation that Labour’s foreign policy lacked “values” (and what an inadequate linguistic vessel for a whole fleet of assumptions that seemingly innocuous description is) is one that could only be made by an individual not “sullied” by the decisions of those times.

But it is more than that. It is, try as I might to find an alternative understanding, an insult. To Cabinet members of the period, but more importantly to the thousands of men and women who fought attacks using the same lazy characterisations – the Bushitlerisms, the pictures of Blair and latterly Brown (because the monomania of the liberal chattering classes was an inflexible one) grinning sickly with “Dubya” – from Respect, the Liberal Democrats and Greens across the country. To those of us who believed in what we were doing and weren’t just going through the motions. It was clear last night that the issue continued to divide and to spark controversy (it was not the “anti-Imperialist” cakewalk we are meant to expect through repeated bludgeoning from the liberal media and those who think they command a monopoly of virtue within the party).

I am proud of our achievements in foreign affairs – saving the people of Kosovo from the depredations of Serbian nationalism, the defence of Sierra Leonean democracy, the increase in overseas aid, leading the way on banning anti-personnel landmines. And, yes, Afghanistan and Iraq – two fledgling democracies no longer under the boot of theocracy and fascism.

Quite why I as a man of not quite 30 and with no personal involvement in any of those disputes should feel the need to fight these battles is somewhat beyond me. I suppose it’s because of those supposedly absent “values”. Inconvenient things.

But, despite everything I have written before, Iraq is not and cannot be the issue. It is the obsession of a minority. A small band on the fringes of the party who wish to pick at old wounds. Can I say anything other than follow David Miliband’s careful formulation? That Bush was the worst thing ever to happen to Tony Blair. And how we and he might retrospectively wish for a competent commander-in-chief, a social democrat, a man committed to rebuilding a broken society, a leader committed to fighting school by school and sewer by sewer for the future of the Iraqi people. But sometimes history plays a trick. The crackle of radio static greets the most heartfelt and worthy of pleas. It seems quite wrong to talk of sacrifice in the political sphere when so many brave men and women have lost their lives, but our party has paid a terrible price for its internationalism. Possibly even the eschewal of permanent electoral dominance.

But those who revisit the matter will only visit perpetual discord upon our party.

Whether a man who uses his absence from difficult decisions as a virtue can lead us to victory, we shall see. We must move on; raking over the coals cannot help. This leadership debate is thus far not helping.

There is a man, who last night looked like a statesman. A moderate, sober figure.

Like Tony Blair.

That man is David Miliband. And for those reasons, and for the very reasons I shall cast my triad of votes for him, he will not be the next leader of the party. For, no doubt a matter of bitter regret for him, he is cast as the second Charles of the Blairite Restoration. But this is a land that seeks a more radical Cromwell, and not a return to the last thirteen years.

And part of the desire is that amnesia. That sadness of politics – the desire to break with the past. To condemn the ancien regime. To forget that the party made it and sustained it and caused it to continue to be.

But there is no Star Chamber. No appeal to a higher court of justice or morality before which they may lead us in leaden chains, much as many of them would wish it. Of course, they never understood us. We always loved this party. No one ever joined Labour, or struggled so hard to make it electable, or fought for it in good times and bad, because they hated the party. And, like Gaitskell, we’ll fight and fight again, for as long as is necessary, to make it a vessel fit for the practical aspirations of working men and women.

You know, a lot of historians would say that the Restoration was inevitable, at some point or another.