New Labour leader Miliband is giving nothing away

So, what can lawyers expect from the new Labour (not New Labour) leader Edward (not David) Miliband?

Elizabeth Laing
Elizabeth Laing

I looked for clues in his speech. The Manifesto (despite its ­presumed authorship) is toast, a point stressed by the phrase the ’new generation’. But it will be hard to escape the ghosts of the past. The stony faces of former cabinet members in the audience suggested ­otherwise. And they are very much alive.

New Labour was not ideological. A party if not founded but funded by trade unions, it left collective labour law untouched. But initially, with the Human Rights Act (HRA) and the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA), its legislation changed the relationship between citizens and the state. This reflected a strand of liberalism in the Labour tradition.

Tony Blair now recants. He admits in his autobiography that the FOIA was a mistake. He says nothing positive about the HRA. This coolness, if not hostility, is matched by an impression that Labour in government buckled under tabloid ­pressure. Recall the mien of successive home secretaries and their policies on crime, immigration, sentencing and ­terrorism.

So where does Miliband stand? Will he crave approval from the tabloids or pursue different ends? This speech gives little away. He accepted that Labour lost the election because it seemed remote from voters and had become the new ­establishment. He stated that his task is to challenge established thinking and to reshape the centre ground of politics.

So far, so… ambiguous.

He said that individual freedom and ­liberty matter and that detaining suspects for 90 days without trial was wrong. But this would not be a sea change for Labour if translated into opposition policy. No major figure in any party advocates this position. More tellingly, his analysis is that a failure to listen to concerns about ­immigration is one of the reasons why Labour lost five million votes, and he promised that “we will always stand up for the mainstream majority”.

On the FOIA and the HRA he was silent. Indeed, as far as I can remember the only Labour leadership candidate who defended the HRA in her campaign was Diane Abbott. On the surveillance society, Miliband’s view was that CCTV is a good thing, but he supported the current home secretary’s stance on restricting the use of stop-and-search powers. Such restrictions would not be soft on terrorism, he said.

He hinted at support for the unions: “Workers need a voice that speaks for them.” But in a proximate breath he ­insisted that neither he nor the public will back “irresponsible strikes”. This is limited evidence of his position on trade union law, or what that might be.

He said little about employment law. He did suggest that agency workers should be protected and he reaffirmed support for a living wage. He thinks there is still work to be done on gender equality. On the other hand, he does want Labour to be the party of enterprise and small business, while – naturally – increasing bank regulation.

There was very little about criminal and penal policy (and it contradicted Jack Straw’s recent pronouncement); nothing (unsurprisingly) about public funding. It is probable, since he acknowledged that the deficit must be reduced, albeit cautiously, that if cuts in these areas are proposed Labour will not oppose them vigorously.

For lawyers, then, his position is more or less inscrutable. There are worse places for a new leader to be.