The Labour Party's election of Ed Miliband as its new leader tells us a lot about the debate raging within the party. The result may well determine how long Labour remains in political opposition after its hiding in the recent general election. A lot will depend on whether or not Mr. Miliband is ready and willing to address the mistakes of his predecessors Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. This task is not as formidable as it appears because, it has been argued, the Conservative and Liberal Democrat Parties did not win the election as much as Labour lost it.
Writing in Newsweek (20 September, 2010), William Underhill was quite candid in his article "How Labour sold out". Many critics, Underhill pointed out, believe that Labour under Blair and Brown morphed from being the party of the working class to being the party of the moneyed class. The Guardian's leading political commentator, Polly Toynbee, said that some in the upper echelons of the party were seduced "into the very un-Labour worlds of lucre".
This perception is perhaps most obvious with the changes which took place in Labour's orientation towards the Middle East after Blair engaged the fabulously rich Michael Levy, aka Mr Cashpoint, as his chief fundraiser. Andrew Porter of Business magazine said this led to a "tacit understanding that Labour would never again, while Blair was leader, be anti-Israel" (as if it ever was). Moreover, the now Lord Levy's involvement in Labour's fund-raising saw a dramatic shift toward private funding instead of the traditional source, namely the trade unions, thus weakening their influence over party policy.
If it is true that Ed Miliband was supported overwhelmingly by the trades unions in the leadership election, this may well herald the beginning of a new era for the Labour Party, particularly with regard to its policy on Palestine. Earlier this month the Trades Union Congress (TUC) took a landmark decision to boycott Israeli goods originating from illegal settlements on the occupied West Bank. The TUC is vehemently opposed to the settlements, which are outlawed under international law. The umbrella body's decision followed a wave of similar motions by individual unions, all outraged by Israel's brutal occupation and human rights abuses of the Palestinian people.
When Ed Miliband says he is his own man he should be given the benefit of the doubt, but he will be under pressure to ditch New Labour's failed domestic policies as well as its failed and failing foreign policies. That would have to include the policy on Palestine. The "poodle" image of British leaders being manipulated by American neo-cons must be a thing of the past, special relationship or not.
Thus far, and to his credit, Mr. Miliband has made some interesting statements, notably in an interview with the website www.politics.co.uk: "For example on the Middle East and Israel-Palestine, [the Americans are] always going to have their particular view. We've got to have our particular view. So I was certainly outspoken at the time about the attack on the Gaza flotilla. We need to do that. The Gaza blockade needs to be lifted. You've got to be willing." He trailed off for a moment, then added: "One of the assumptions about the Cold War was that if you departed from the American script you were anti-American and therefore part of the Soviet Union. I think there is a Foreign Office establishment view, which is that we are part of what they call the interagency process. You've got the National Security Agency, the State Department, and the British government. You've got to change that view. Yes, the relationship with the US is important but you've got to be stronger about saying we've got an independent foreign policy." Now Ed Miliband has the opportunity to turn those views into party policy and many will pay close attention to how he gets on.
Putting the leadership result to one side, Mr. Miliband's new role was not the only encouraging development in Labour Party politics over the past week. The selection of Ken Livingstone as Labour's candidate to return to City Hall as the next Mayor of London was not without significance. Mr. Livingstone was a casualty of the neo-con and pro-Israel lobby in the last mayoral election because of his principled support for the Palestinian people. His candidacy confirms that the process of soul searching within Labour's ranks has started and there is a clear resolve to break with the neo-con's ideology of oppression, warfare and occupation. That can only be a positive step for everyone, not just the people of Palestine.