The privatisation of politics

New Labour’s power struggle looks like medieval-style infighting between courtly cliques, from which we peasants are excluded.

Did you see what that two-faced David said behind Gordon’s back, and what Gordon’s bitchy friends said about David, and that rude note Tony sent around about Gordon, and all the dirty rumours that the other children started spreading around the playground before they broke up for the summer holidays?

If you didn’t, don’t worry. They were not talking to us. The latest shenanigans in the Labour leadership struggle confirm that British politics has become a private affair within the elite, with personal backstabbing and bitching replacing democratic debate. Gordon, David and Tony are the prime minister, foreign minister and former premier respectively, and the other kids in question are important Labour MPs. But their recent exchanges are the political equivalent of nasty schoolyard gossip that excludes those not in their gang.

Perhaps they have unintentionally done the rest of us a favour, by laying bare the true state of affairs. At least it should now be clear that top-level political life is a private affair, in which personal cliques squabble over power. As we have noted on spiked in recent years, as the gap separating the isolated political class from the electorate has widened government affairs have come increasingly to resemble medieval court politics, in which gangs of courtiers coalesce around claimants to the throne and manoeuvre for the crown.

First it was Brown and Blair, now it is Brown and Miliband and possibly others. But these courtly squabbles are only about personal power; there is no more issue of political principle between the warring cliques than there was between the Houses of York and Lancaster in the Wars of the Roses. Meanwhile the mass of the supposed electorate get little more of a look in than did the powerless peasantry of yore.

It was a sign of how low matters have sunk that Miliband chose to launch his alleged bid for the leadership, via a newspaper article, while prime minister Brown was away on holiday. There was some media talk about whether Miliband had stabbed Brown in the back or the chest, and the usual allusions to the assassination of Julius Caesar. But Caesar’s assassins at least had the nerve to attack him in person on the steps of the Roman senate, rather than waiting until he was off at his summer villa before publishing a ‘traitorous’ column in the Guardian. Miliband’s stabbing was also done backhanded. His article did not announce any bid for the leadership or make any direct criticisms of Brown – it simply failed to mention the prime minister.

Yet this coded note silently attacking Brown, passed around the classroom so that those in the know would understand it, has been hailed as a bold political stand, with sympathetic politicians and commentators announcing excitedly that now, at last, New Labour has a programme on which it can win! The self-delusion that has dogged Labour and the left for so long returns with a vengeance. What exactly was this thrilling programme announced by Miliband? It was, according to the headline of his article, ‘a platform for change’. Of what that change might actually mean – other than an implied change of leader – there was no sign. Yet it was hailed as momentous by the same commentators who little more than a year ago were cheering new prime minister Brown for his empty promise of, er, ‘change’.

That a fairly vacuous Guardian column could spark such a furore is evidence of how little of political substance there is to bind the New Labour cliques together today, and how bitter are the personal scores they want to settle. Thus the old Blairites quickly took the opportunity of Miliband’s article and Brown’s absence to leak a ‘private’ memo to pals that the former prime minister apparently wrote last September. In it, Blair criticised his successor for lacking a clear political vision (true, if somewhat rich coming from him) and complained in suitably adolescent language that the new New Labour government had ‘dissed’ its own record. That was written after last year’s party conference. This year’s conference promises to be even more vacuous politically, yet a hotbed of intrigue behind the scenes.

Brown is no innocent victim in all this, of course. He has been hoist with his own petard. His decade-long struggle to replace Blair as prime minister was never an open political contest, but a conniving, cowardly and petty bid for personal power.  Brown’s biographer, Tom Bower, records sordid episodes such as the time when Brown – then Blair’s chancellor of exchequer – secretly urged Labour MPs to vote against his own government’s proposals for foundation hospitals, as a way of undermining the prime minister and getting their own back for the Iraq War. Brown never came out in public against either policy. And those now complaining about an attempted undemocratic ‘coup’ against the prime minister might recall that was precisely how Brown replaced Blair.

Now the supposedly ‘bold’ Miliband appears to be following the less-than-bold campaign route mapped out by Brown. As foreign secretary he sits at the centre of government, supporting and implementing its policies as Brown did during the Blair years, while his supporters hint at some unspecified important differences. He issues only coded challenges while the leader is safely off on holiday. And while political pundits whip themselves into frenzy over the ‘plot’, the would-be plotters all keep their heads down until they are absolutely sure Brown is finished and it is safe for them to come out of hiding.

I suggested at the time of Blair’s fall from power that even that image-obsessed, politics-lite prime minister looked like a colossus compared to the political pygmies who would follow him, and that some people would soon get nostalgic for the ‘good old days’ of the widely-despised Blair. Sure enough, recent polls suggest that New Labour would immediately cut 10 points off the Conservatives’ poll lead if Blair were to return as leader. No doubt Brown is grateful that his old rival gave up his seat as an MP as well as the party leadership. But what a testament to the state of politics that the man many said would be remembered as ‘Tony Bliar’ can now appear trustworthy and authoritative next to a Brown or a Miliband. It is also a sign of how thin the Conservatives’ true support is, and how David Cameron has little more hold over the public mind than do the New Labour wings of the political elite.

Miliband might seem the natural heir to Blair in the latest round of court politics, especially as, like wannabe kings of old, he comes from a Labour Party dynasty and can stake a claim to the throne by birth. But any notion that this geeky posh boy can be ‘the British Obama’ and excite a public revival of political interest seems as far fetched as the notion that Tory posh boy Cameron could do the same. A change of leader cannot magically resolve the crisis of leadership in political life – indeed, as the Brown accession showed, it can make matters worse by exposing the depth of the problem. Another change of face at the top is not going to revive New Labour, any more than Brown’s silly scheme to hold cabinet meetings in the West Midlands is really going to put his government ‘back in touch with the British people’.

Nor, more importantly, would another round of bloodletting in the court of the political elite mean anything better for the rest of us. Let them squabble over the corpse of the Labour Party if they must. It is a private affair, and since they appear determined to keep democracy and the masses out of it, perhaps we should not intrude too much on their grief.  Those who want to see a genuine democratic revolution will need to look elsewhere to start the sort of political debate required. So far as advancing the cause of change is concerned, the elite cliques can take as long a holiday as they like.

Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.

Previously on spiked

Mick Hume looked at the fall of Gordon Brown and argued that despite claims of a Labour revival you can’t revive a corpse. He also criticised David Miliband’s recent foreign policy initiative. Elsewhere, to mark the beginning of Gordon Brown’s reign, Brendan O’Neill listed 10 reasons why Brown is not fit to be Prime Minister. Or read more at spiked issues British politics.

For permission to republish spiked articles, please contact Viv Regan.

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