A make-believe leader for a make-believe party
The weird victory of Ed Miliband reveals that there’s no rhyme or reason to the inner workings of the British Labour Party today.
After it ditched everything it once claimed to believe in, launched three disastrous wars, obliterated key freedoms, and went from viewing the working classes as potential voters to branding them a dumb, unhealthy blob in need of constant policing, you might think there is nothing left to admire in the Labour Party. But there is one thing. Its powers of self-delusion. These are so strong, so unshakeable, that they cannot help but inspire a kind of bizarre, wide-eyed awe in anyone who beholds them. And they have been on full display following the election of Ed Miliband as the new Labour leader.
Labour’s most influential members and supporters are propagating the fiction that Ed’s election represents a brilliant new dawn, a clear and conscious expression by the Labour Party about what it believes in and where it wants to go next. He’s a ‘radical leader for a radical new era’, reckons Roy Hattersley. Apparently he’s the singlehanded saviour of ‘social democracy’, who will ‘bring fundamental principles up to date’. He will resurrect ‘Real Labour’. Labour has spoken, we are told, and according to the leadership loser Ed Balls it has done so with a ‘remarkable degree of ideological unity’.
If this all sounds familiar, that’s because the exact same things were said about Gordon Brown when he became Labour leader and PM in 2007 (though without the benefit of a leadership contest). Brown would recover ‘Labour’s soul’, commentators promised, and introduce ‘changes more radical than anything that went before’. And we know what happened to him. The ability of Labour’s backers to talk up a ‘fresh start for Labour’ again and again, to claim that a fundamental nobody like Ed Miliband can revive the ‘principles of social democracy’ even as that political creed is dying a death everywhere from Britain to Australia to Sweden, reveals almost pathological levels of reality-avoidance. None of them stops to think that maybe their constant talk of recovering Labour’s soul, of going back to ‘Real Labour’, is itself an unwitting admission of the fact that modern Labour has no soul, and is not even real anymore.
The fact is that, far from the election of Ed Miliband being the expression of a ‘remarkable degree of ideological unity’, it actually reveals that there is no rhyme or reason to the inner workings of the Labour Party today. Ed’s victory was more an accident, the result of an eventual conflation of various cliquish interests, than it was a clear expression of Labour will. For a start, it is striking that he’s the first Labour leader since the current party voting system was introduced in 1980 to have won his position without gaining the support of a majority of party members. In the fourth round of voting, Ed won with 50.65 per cent of votes to his brother David’s 49.35 per cent - yet only 15.2 per cent of Ed’s support was from party members, compared with 18.1 per cent of David’s (the rest coming from trade union members and MPs).
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The fluctuating level of support for Ed during the pre-election debate and during the various rounds of voting at the weekend was less a case of Labour speaking (never mind with ‘ideological unity’) than it was a kind of electoral stream of consciousness. Ed came almost from nowhere in recent months, and it was precisely his lack of real leadership experience, his political pointlessness, that meant he could become a vessel for all sorts of fantasies about the future of Labour. There was a semi-conscious attempt to project a political persona on to this 40-year-old vacuum in a suit. Some labelled him ‘Red Ed’; trade unionists described him as ‘our man’; for others he combined ‘the best’ of both the Blair and Brown camps. The sight of Ed swatting aside these various externally generated labels, without once saying what he did stand for, spoke volumes about the hole at the heart of Labour, its inability to define its mission, its supporters’ desperate rummaging around in the past for some former ideologies that they might pin on today’s politics-free party leaders.
The essential meaninglessness of Ed’s victory was well captured in a column by a seasoned Labour hack, who said there must now be a ‘battle to shape the narrative about Ed’s victory’; Ed must give ‘a public explanation [for his victory] that will echo for years to come’. If his victory really had been the result of ideological unity, a clear expression of the party’s desire for a ‘radical new era’ of ‘renewed social democracy’, then of course there would be no need to create a post-election narrative, to give a self-conscious public explanation for why this particular candidate won. This attempt to account for Ed’s victory after the fact is very revealing. It turns politics as we have known it on its head. Once, aspiring leaders would have outlined their ideas and won support on that basis; today, in shocking contrast, Ed won but no one really knows why, so the explanation, with a few leadership ideas attached, has to be magicked up afterwards. This shines a brilliantly harsh light, for anyone willing to look, on the soullessness, opportunism and absence of agency and mission in contemporary politics.
Two myths in particular about Ed’s victory need to be squashed. The first is that this was a win for the old trade union left, who made up 20 per cent of Ed’s final vote, compared with 13.5 per cent of David’s. Yet this was not a case, as both right-leaning papers and disgruntled David-backers claim, of the old left stamping its bootprint back on to Labour. The trade union lobby is as politically incoherent, cut off from the majority of the public and in search of its lost ‘soul’ as is the Labour Party - as evidenced by the fantasies and bluster on display at the TUC conference earlier this month. No, the trade union support for Ed over David is better understood as an assertion of a kind of corporate sensibility on the part of the trade union movement, a cliquish advertisement of its apparent leftism, rather than an expression of political support for so-called Red Ed. The trade-union vote was kneejerkly anti-David – and by extension anti-Blair – rather than being pro-Ed.
And the second myth is that the election of Ed was a conscious party rebellion against David’s very powerful backers – in particular Peter Mandelson, Philip Gould and Blair, the architects of New Labour. The rejection of these Labour bigwigs’ favoured candidate was indeed striking, but again it was not a case of the party making an alternative political choice, resolutely deciding to redefine itself in a new, more ‘real’ direction and to say ‘bye bye Blairism’, as one observer claims. (After all, Mandelson was heartily cheered at the party conference in 2008, and Ed has been in the pocket of various New Labourites for the past 12 years.) Rather, the rejection of the Labour establishment candidate reveals that what counts in politics today is not having any traceable association with the politics that went before. The warrant for authority these days is to not have wielded authority in the past or to have been intimately linked with those who did. In our era of flux, constant churn, rootless parties and unanchored politics, the attraction of Ed is precisely that he is largely an unknown quantity, untainted by the burdens of power. He has, ironically, been elected leader primarily because he has never been a leader.
This leadership contest revealed how utterly adrift Labour is. It took place in an almost perfectly sealed political vacuum, where the concerns or thoughts of the public made no impact whatsoever. Why would they, when the modern Labour Party and its various cliques have only the most perfunctory relationship with ‘ordinary people’ (as they call us)? Instead, this was a decadent, neo-aristocratic affair, with various party grouplets shifting their allegiances around for no clear or rational reason, while media insiders sought to provide a political personality and narrative for Ed. It is very revealing that Ed is said to be genuinely shocked that he won. It’s even more revealing that the rest of us don’t care.
Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.