I’m going to keep this one unusually short. I just thought I’d give some brief thoughts on the current situation with Ed Miliband, the public sector pay freeze and the constant barracking he’s receiving from both sides (union leaders and Blairites).
I really feel for him. The job of Labour leader has never been an easy one. Many have struggled to withstand the pressure from right (nowadays Blairites) and left (trade unions). Ed’s in a particularly tough situation, however, with the perception that the Tories and the media will continue to hammer home that he was crowned leader by the unions coupled with the bitterness among so many Blairites that their man (Ed's brother David) didn’t win. It’s only the Blairites that have any chance of overthrowing him (as James Purnell and co. tried to do to Brown). A coup won’t come from the left – we know Ed would only be replaced my someone closer to the centre. He therefore feels he has to give the right of the party something to feed on – populist authoritarian crap on law and order (opposing prisoners’ votes, for instance) and quasi-Daily Mail stuff on welfare being among concessions that pained me to read about. At the same time, unions understandably feel aggrieved. Their members are being hit harder than at any time since Thatcher. They did vote for him in numbers, to be fair, and feel they're getting little back.
This is where balance is crucial. Yes, we need to win back trust on the economy. But there is a difference between being ‘credible’ and being trigger-happy to follow the brutal Tory austerity program. We need balance between pragmatism and Labour values, which matter even more in times of austerity when the people we were born to represent are having their living standards slashed. With less money around, wherever the crisis was born, it’s imperative it is not the poorest who suffer most. Why shouldn’t Len McCluskey and other union leaders speak out when they hear Ed or Ed Balls coming close to endorsing the savage Tory cuts that are putting hundreds of their members out of work? While I’m not saying he should oppose every cut, he needs to find a way to put wealth distribution and jobs at the heart of a responsible deficit reduction program.
Not by reducing unemployment benefit by going after these ‘scroungers’ you’d think existed in millions if you read the tabloids yet who are in fact few and far between and do twenty times less damage to the economy than tax evasion but by reducing unemployment. We need to be louder in opposing government plans to ‘cut red tape so it’s easier to hire and fire workers’, for example. As Mehdi Hasan puts it: ‘Britain already has one of the least-protected workforces in the developed world’. Slashing ‘red tape’ will only make it easier for employers to lay off workers, not put more into employment. Countries with the most severe restrictions on firing people – Norway, Austria and the Netherlands – have unemployment rates well below the UK’s, while the US – the classic hire-and-fire economy - has nearly 10% out of work.
It is possible, as we saw under Attlee, to find that balance - if it wasn’t for the state of the economy after the war, there would be no NHS. Ed hasn't found it yet. I will be – and hope other members on both sides will be – fully behind him until he gets there.
Update (21/01): I was lucky enough to be on Radio 4's Any Answers to air many of the thoughts expressed in here. Around 16 minutes in.