David Osler, author of the 2002 study Labour Party plc, talked to Solidarity about prospects in the Labour Party.
Q. According to Ed Miliband on 27 November, 43,000 people have joined (or rejoined) the Labour Party since the general election in May 2010. Do you have any assessment of what this little surge represents, and what its effects are likely to be?
A. It’s dangerous to generalise from purely local experience, but the new recruits I have met have tended to be nice concerned thirty-something professionals who have not previously been members of any political party.
Superficially they look, talk and dress like the Blairites who signed up in the 1990s, but the good news is that they are motivated by genuine political dislike of what they coalition is doing, rather than any desire to advance their careers.
They do not strike me as a particularly radical bunch, but that is only to be expected from a generation that has had no exposure to reform-socialist or even social democratic ideas.
What I have not witnessed is an influx of angry youth, poorly-paid workers or Trot group retreads, many of whom retain an active hostility to Labour, which is understandable given what they witnessed in the New Labour years. But let me repeat, these remarks are entirely based on immediate impressions.
Q. Ed Miliband was elected by union votes, against a big majority of MPs and a small majority of CLP voters who favoured David Miliband. And he promised a break with New Labour. Since then he seems to have put much effort into convincing the media that he is not "Red Ed" and not tied to the unions. Where do you think he is going?
A. Either Ed Miliband is the most resolutely lackadaisical leader of a major party in modern times, or he is making a deliberate point of not immediately setting a political direction and instead allowing the party time for reflection. If the latter is the case, the contrast with his predecessors is exemplary.
Yes, I did give him my second preference, in the full knowledge that Diane Abbott would be eliminated before he would be, and did so with the awareness that his opponents’ attempts to brand him a Bennite were risible.
But if he drops the control freakery and presides over a climate in which it is permissible for members to speak their minds openly, that will be a step forward on the situation that obtained previously.
Obviously, Miliband did not back John McDonnell’s Lawful Industrial Action (Minor Errors) Bill, and he has not exactly thrown himself behind the student protests. On the other hand, he has yet to do or say anything particularly ghastly. For now, I’m happy to cut him some slack.
Q. Your book "Labour Party plc", in 2002, documented a shift by the Labour Party towards not only ideological but also financial dependence on big business. It looks as if the Labour Party has been forced to revert somewhat to its old financial dependence on the unions. Is that so? How stable do you think that reversion is?
Clearly I over-estimated the permanence of the shift, although I was carefully to include in the book the assessment that on balance Labour remained a workers’ party, albeit only just. As the figures show, the unions are once again footing the bills.
I don’t see much mileage in Miliband courting the super-rich in the way Blair did, if only because there is little chance of business leaders responding to flirtation.
Q. Do you think there is any new will and confidence in the unions to assert themselves in the Labour Party?
A. Even a few weeks ago, I would have said ‘no’. I still don’t think this is a project that the general secretaries of the big unions are particularly keen to undertake.
But clearly there is a potential for a change of mood among unionised working class and middle class people, as there has been among students, and that will inevitably have to find a political reflection. If that happens, the union leaderships will find themselves obliged to reflect it. Positive developments can’t be ruled out.
Q. A comprehensive review of Labour Party structure is promised, but Ed Miliband appears to be loading the dice in advance by saying it should include giving a say in Labour Party decisions to people who are not even trade union political levy papers. What do you think the left should be pressing for in this review, and what do you see as the possible range of outcomes from the review?
I remember the post-1987 policy review under Kinnock, which represented the kind of ‘review’ in which the outcome was never in doubt. My fear is that we are in for something similar this time round.
I’m happy to debate secondary nuances in internal procedures, and I’ll willingly leave it to the rule book obsessives to follow the small print. But the left needs to set down some red lines, especially on meaningful union participation in important decisions.
Q. Do you think the coalition government will move on the Hayden Phillips proposals [for state funding of political parties], and how do you think the left should respond?
A. I had assumed that Hayden Phillips has been dead in the water since 2007. Then I noticed a speech from Nick Clegg in November, in which he demanded that political party funding be revisited. But obviously I have no inside knowledge of coalition deliberations on this one.