Labour's "Red" Ed?

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At times the Labour Party leadership contest seemed to go on forever.

At the beginning it also seemed as if it would be profoundly dull, with four men - of roughly the same age, background and politics - in the running alongside a token "left" candidate in the form of Diane Abbott (token in the sense that she was only there because David Miliband instructed supporters to put her on the ticket).

However, the contest became more interesting than that. It quickly became clear that David Miliband was the chosen son of the Blairites and the party establishment. He represented the wing that wanted to portray Gordon Brown as not having been consistently Blairite enough and Blair's wars as noble crusades. They also essentially favour a hard line on spending cuts not far different from that of the Tories.

Against this background Ed was increasingly seen - and indeed increasingly sold himself - as the "next generation" who could look back with a critical eye on the Blair/Brown love-in with the City, state his opposition to the war in Iraq and carry a line that was seen to be very different from his brother's on the depth and speed of spending cuts.

It was generally felt that David would win, but a late surge, particularly with votes from trade union members, saw Ed carry the day.

The vote surely reflected the real concerns of ordinary union members. It reflected their anger and frustration at the missed opportunities of the Blair/Brown years, a desire to see an end to a Labour leadership that treated unions with utter contempt, and of course a real fear of what the future may hold under the coalition government.

Therefore Ed's election represented something real and in that sense should be welcomed by socialists. But it only took a couple of "Red Ed" headlines in the tabloids to see Ed quickly scurrying to the right in an entirely predictable fashion.

In his first speech as leader he made it clear that he was going to be tough with the unions, was not going to support "irresponsible" strike action and would be constructive in the way he responded to coalition cuts.

In his appointment of the shadow cabinet he sent an even clearer message that there is nothing "red" about Ed. While it is true that the shadow cabinet election only involved MPs, who are overwhelmingly pro-David rather than pro-Ed and therefore favoured right wing candidates, Miliband's appointments were still telling.

His decision to overlook Ed Balls for shadow chancellor in favour of Alan Johnson was instructive. Balls ran his leadership campaign on an economic programme that offered the clearest alternative to the coalition's slash and burn, yet Miliband went with the arch-Blairite Johnson.

As soon as Johnson was in place he was apparently telling Miliband to drop all talk of a graduate tax.

If Balls was seen as more left wing on the economy, when it came to immigration he was seen as the hardliner in the leadership campaign. Again Miliband was sending a clear signal when he appointed Balls as shadow home secretary.

But, despite Miliband's rush to the right, a number of interesting factors emerged from the election. In the halcyon days of the Labour left in the 1980s there was no doubt that the constituency parties represented the most left wing section of the party. This was clearly not true this time. If the MPs were the most right wing and hardline supporters of David Miliband, union members - not the constituency parties - were by far the most leftward voters.

This would seem to confirm the incredible weakness of the Labour left. Apart from the fact that no genuinely left candidate got on the ballot, there was an absolute absence of a Labour left input into the debates.

Indeed, Jon Cruddas, who has often been painted as the new leader of the Labour left, supported David Miliband. After Ed's election Cruddas issued an astonishingly cringe-worthy statement about how disloyal it was to run against his brother.

In the meantime the movement will be looking to Miliband to speak up for all those who will be hammered by coalition cuts.

The real test of Miliband will be how he stands up to a climate of pro-cut hysteria in the media, how far he supports resistance to those cuts and what alternative his Labour Party can offer. So far the signs are not promising.

But two final points emerge from all this. Recruitment to Labour has been growing significantly since the election, and a significant number of Lib Dem members have defected to Labour. Maybe then the constituency parties can gain some life, and maybe a left can then begin to re-emerge.