The battle for the Labour leadership has ended and it is one the party has won. For the first time since John Smith was elected in 1992, the party has a leader that is broadly representative of its mainstream opinion but still in touch with the feelings of the wider electorate. However, as is often the case in politics, the more important battle-over how Miliband’s leadership and policy platform is perceived and defined-has already begun. It is this which will determine whether he enters No.10 as Prime Minister or whether he becomes the next in a long line of Labour leaders enamoured of their party but not of their country.The Tories were quick out of the gates, labelling the new leader as ‘Red Ed’, referring to his pledge to keep the 50% top rate of tax and the fact that it was the union vote that put him over the top: His brother had the most first preferences amongst both MPs and amongst members.
However, while Ed certainly does bring a breath of fresh air after 16 years of New Labour, he represents a new strand of thinking that is neither as unimaginative and anodyne as New Labour was, but nor as introspective and stubborn as Old Labour. It is something that can’t easily be labelled as ‘left’ and the new leadership should ensure that it isn’t. His stance on increasing the minimum wage of £5.93 to a living wage of £7.50 has already been adopted by the Conservative Mayor of London, Boris Johnson (who hardly could be said to be on the left of his party). Minimum wage policies have been adopted around the world by governments of all hues as sensible, pragmatic measures to save money on income supplements and poverty relief measures that are needed when people don’t earn enough to support themselves from their employment.
Similarly, advocating higher taxes on banks to reduce the need for cuts to deal with a deficit caused by an irresponsible banking and financial sector is not only widely popular amongst the public but becoming part of a cross-party and international consensus: Why else would the Business Minister in a right wing, ultra pro-business government spend his party conference speech “Shining a harsh light into the murky world of corporate behaviour”?His support for including Trident in a strategic defence review would aim not to dismantle Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent but would seek to save billions that could be redirected to frontline services by making them air or land-based.
All of these policies are representative not of a swing left but a sensible reappraisal of what the centre ground of politics is after several years of significant economic and political upheaval. What both his brother and the rest of the New Labour old guard haven’t realised is that the centre ground never stays the same. A nationally-run free health service was attacked as a harbinger of Communism in the 1940s, but is now the sacred cow of British politics, prized right across the spectrum. Just like the Second World War changed what was both politically possible and politically necessary, so have the political and eoconomic crises of the past few years. There is no reason to believe that the centre ground of politics in the next twenty years will be the same has been in the previous twenty.
Ed Miliband rightly said the morning after his election “I am for the centre-ground of politics, but it is about defining where the centre ground is.” Labour should be at pains to emphasise that its agenda is not necessarily about left or right, but about doing right. It is the battle of definition-to define the centre ground and in turn define New Labour’s position relative to it that Miliband has rightly taken on and will be the key to Labour’s future.