JOYCE MCMILLAN for The Scotsman, 30.9.11
NICE GUY, Ed Miliband. He may have pushed his own brother aside in ruthless style to win the Labour leadership, a year ago this week; and he may look like every other identikit “leader” of our time – male, heterosexual, fortyish and upper middle class, with a smooth complexion, and attractive wife and kids.
It seems fairly clear, though, that he fought for the leadership because he believed – after the financial crisis of 2008 – that his party had to be saved from another round of uncritical Blairite thinking, too far to the right to offer a new beginning; and it’s also clear, following this week’s speech to the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool, that he means what he says about moving on from the uncritical pro-market values that have powered British politics for the last generation, and ending his party’s collusion with the antisocial behaviour of the rich. It’s therefore no accident that Ed Miliband’s finest political hour, so far, came when he decided, against the received Westminster wisdom of the last two decades, to break with Rupert Murdoch’s Newscorp over the phone-hacking case, and to denounce the company’s behavour as unacceptable.
That, though, is about as far as praise can go, when it comes to the Labour leader. For in truth, he makes about as convincing an alternative Prime Minister as Iain Duncan Smith did, during his ill-fated Tory leadership of 2001-2003; and the reason lies not in his political beliefs, but in his all-too-obvious membership of a generation of polticians who are not in fact politicians, but glorified back-room boys and girls, lacking in many of the basic skills of the job they seek. And if we look closely at Ed Miliband’s big speech to the Labour Party conference, we can see this problem of the leader who is not really a politician writ large.
In the first place, there is the abject failure of language; for despite all its fine sentiments about a “new set of rules” for British society, which will reward hard work, decency and real achievement, this is a speech without a single vivid image, a single memorable phrase. It may be that Ed Miliband is hostile to the culture of the soundbite, and rightly so. But describing possible futures in ways that people find memorable, vivid and transforming remains one of the key tasks of political leadership; and it’s obvious from the banal and plodding texture of this speech not only that Ed Miliband lacks that creative gift himself, but that no-one in his office even understands the problem.
This failure of language, though, is no superficial thing, to be remedied with a few tweaks of vocabulary; because it reflects a whole culture of rootless elite policy-making around Westminster and Millbank, think-tank driven, jargon-heavy, and increasingly severed from the real life of the voters. The decline of the Labour Party as a grass-roots social movement, the old-fashioned Blairite obsession with severing trade union links, the growing separation of the leadership from the nuts-and-bolts organisation that creates political strength on the ground, and makes true radicalism possible; all of this has produced a generation of young would-be leaders with only a vague focus-group image of the society they would lead, and often no knowledge at all of its rich pattern of popular and local culture, and of how those cultures interact with the task of political organisation. It’s therefore hardly surprising that Ed Miliband was revealed, yesterday, as the kind of Labour leader who cannot even remember all the names of those competing to lead the party in Scotland; in terms of Labour history, he is the ultimate Westminster Bubble Boy, brought up in the protected environment of the kitchen cabinets of the New Labour years, and barely acquainted with most of the MP’s he leads, far less with the party’s MSP’s and councillors.
And then finally, there is the question of ideology; that is, of a working political theory, tempered and developed through years of political argument to the point where it can inspire a whole people to seek serious change. The speech Ed Miliband gave on Tuesday contained a laudable statement of values, and a decent critique of the current “quiet crisis”of British society – the crisis of those who do the right thing, and are not rewarded. But there was just one clear – if modest – policy commitment, to reduce the maximum university fee in England; and what is missing, in that yawning gap between values and policy, is a rigorous, witty, workable and energising vision of the kind of society towards which we should strive, and in terms of which all policies must make sense.
In that vital speech, for example, Ed Miliband could have denounced conventional definitions of economic growth, and put flesh on his pieties about the environment by committing Britain to new, sustainable ways of assessing its economic performance. He could have declared himself in favour of a Nordic-style social democracy, with a strong and unapologetic 50/50 balance between the public and private sectors. And he could have talked about the need to forge new international partnerships, if we seriously want to end the most damaging practices of unregulated capitalism. In the end, though, he did none of these things; and the result may be the worst of all possible worlds, a speech radical enough to arouse the dismissive fury of Britain’s right-wing establishment, but not nearly thrilling and sharp-edged enough to rouse the people, and make them demand a new deal in British society.
And what is even more worrying, for the future of democracy in the UK, is that given the growing weakness of our political parties as real channels for grass-roots representation, a nice, presentable backroom guy like Ed Miliband, with decent left-of-centre instincts, is about as good a Labour leader as we are likely to see, any time soon. We are doomed, in other words, to a long period of Conservative government at Westminster, with or without the fig-leaf of coalition; to more SNP triumphalism at Holyrood, with or without real political content; and to a grim decade for social justice, as the forces of economic inequality and environmental destruction grind on through our lives, largely unchallenged, and unchecked.