A lot is being asked of the leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. He is expected to unify a dispirited party, present a road map to reform the capitalist system, provide a feisty opposition to the Conservative- Liberal Democrat coalition and also come up with solutions to the damaging inequities of the government's economic policies.
In the 16 months he has been in the position, in spite of sniping from the media and even critics in his own party who are impatient for change and all too ready to criticise instead of offering viable solutions, Ed Miliband is in fact looking good.
Being leader of the opposition is an opportunity to not only critique the government's policies and vote against them, but it also gives the party out of power the breathing space necessary to reformulate their own policy, to strengthen internal party alliances and morale and to build a new vision for the country. The Labour party he inherited gave Britain thirteen years of dissension between Blairites and Brownites, deferred the hopes of many supporters as New Labour adopted neoliberal economics. It is no easy task to create a party different from the one of the past and Miliband would be wise to learn from the current international social movements as people, from Cairo to Occupy Wall Street, are demonstrating that they expect more from their governments than their failing political and economic systems.
The impatience for change is producing grassroots movements of mainly young people with courage and vision, searching for new political systems to replace uncontrolled capitalism which is starting to look outdated, inflexible and increasingly inequitable. Our current leaders are overly influenced by long-dead economists and what is needed is leadership that is thoughtful, cerebral and analytical.
The voting public however, looks for emotion and charisma in a leader, not analysis. "Miliband does complexity well; it's simplicity he lacks", noted Gaby Hinsliff, former political editor of the Observer. But careful analysis is exactly what is needed in this complex world where politicians and economists alike should be thinking long term instead of expedient, sustainable instead of quick fix.
The Labour Party has three years to reform and rebuild itself before the next election, so Ed Miliband has time on his side. In fact the Party has done well to rebound from its second worst defeat in 100 years, by winning every Parliamentary by-election since the 2010 general election, increasing its share of the national vote by 25%. This is not failure to date, this is a steady revival.
But the growing confidence in the Labour Party is not reflected in confidence in its leader. Public opinion polls show Ed Miliband's popularity has slipped from an early 43% approval to 20% today, an indication perhaps that people are impatient for more than the incremental changes he has offered.
The Party's Five Point Plan includes a £2 billion tax on bank bonuses to fund 100,000 jobs for young people and build 25,000 affordable homes; bringing forward long term investment projects such as building new schools; temporarily reversing the rise in VAT to give a £450 boost to families with children; a one year cut in VAT for home improvements to help small businesses and a tax break for every small firm which takes on extra workers. These are worthy reforms but hardly game-changing.
By calling for "fairness in difficult times" and agreeing to some cuts in public services, Ed Miliband has disappointed the more radical elements of his party who would welcome more revolutionary policies. But he appeals to those being hurt most by the government's austerity measures, the ones in the middle getting squeezed, the working middle class and traditionally Labour voters who are disproportionately being hit by higher costs and cuts in public services. The very poor are still protected by the government's social safety net; the wealthy of course, are still doing just fine.
The Labour leader is vulnerable to critics in his own party for his relationship with labour unions, and his support for the government's pay freeze for public sector workers. He said that it was a difficult choice but when faced with either protecting jobs or giving pay rises, it was right to choose more jobs. Unions are also unhappy with Miliband's attempts to reduce Union influence at conference by weakening their voting bloc, all part of the ongoing attempt to democratize the party structure at the risk of alienating its base.
Ed Miliband's critics can't decide yet whether he is too timid or too ambitious; "there seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy, according to Labour peer, Maurice Glasman. But there is grudging acknowledgement that he is slowly winning the war of ideas. He was attacked when he first spoke of crony capitalism, but now the Tories and Liberal Democrats agree with him. He was proved right when he warned that too much cutting would reduce demand and force new borrowing, as Britain tries to overcome thirty years of deficit. In 2010, Britain's current deficit account with the rest of the world rose from £23.9bn in 2009 to £36.3bn.
On the other hand, Baron Glasman says that Miliband understands everyday democracy and admires his ability to keep the party united and his commitment to address and reverse the issue of national decline. "A balance of interests in corporate governance, a vocational economy, regional banks and fiscal discipline offer a platform for growth" are the way forward, according to Glasman, and Miliband he says, is showing leadership and courage and so far has "honored his responsibilities, but has not exerted his power."
This will surely change as Ed Miliband continues to attack ideas such as trickle-down economics, the triumph of finance over industry and the victory of vested interests over public interests. His beliefs are infectious it seems, as Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has called for an end to the standing feud between capital and labour. He also advocates heavier taxation on unearned wealth with a mansion tax and some sort of property tax, and said that the government would announce new plans to "get tough" on excessive boardroom pay in January.
On 8 January, 2012, the Labour party called again for "more responsible and better capitalism" and introduced a cap on high pay for executives. Prime Minister Cameron, as if on cue, announced a crackdown on executive pay, calling for an end to the "merry-go-round" of bosses approving their own pay awards and proposed giving more power to shareholders.
If Ed Miliband can maintain his determination to reconfigure the relationship between state, the market and society, to get rid of old-fashioned Labour orthodoxy without sacrificing social democracy and to promote his vision of a fairer better economy and society, he will continue to build a powerful consensus for change with support from Liberal Democrats, and maybe even some Conservatives. As for his popularity, it can only go up from now on, and as he enters the new territory of 2012, Ed Miliband remains the best chance that Labour has.
Dr Azeem Ibrahim is an Adjunct Research Professor at the US Army War College, Lecturer at the University of Chicago, Fellow and Member of the Board of Directors at the Institute of Social Policy and Understanding and a former Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard and World Fellow at Yale. He obtained his PhD from Cambridge University.
More writings here: www.azeemibrahim.com
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