Must we watch this political death show on our TVs?
All the highly publicised ‘revelations’ of personal spats confirm that the body formerly known as the Labour Party is fit only for a private burial.
There has been considerable controversy in the UK over a terminally ill man struggling to commit assisted suicide on television. The big political news story, meanwhile, involves the spectacle of terminally deluded politicians and journalists struggling to pretend that a long-dead corpse – the Labour Party – is really a living entity with a soul worth wrestling over.
The past week has brought a stream of damaging revelations about internal feuds within the Labour hierarchy. First, leaks from shadow chancellor Ed Balls’ personal papers confirmed how he and his erstwhile master, the then-chancellor Gordon Brown, had plotted and schemed to oust Tony Blair as New Labour prime minister. This revived all of the old stories about the Blair-Brown power struggles, alongside fresh speculation about how those feuds still fester within the Labour leadership today.
Then a rushed-out biography of new New Labour leader Ed Miliband claimed to expose the truth about the bitter conflict between him and his elder brother, former foreign secretary David Miliband, whom Ed beat to the Labour leadership. Coupled with the publication (over three pages of a newspaper) of a ‘leaked’ copy of the victory speech that Miliband, D had intended to give at the Labour conference, this has stoked more speculation about a challenge to Miliband, E’s lacklustre (to put it kindly) performance as leader of the opposition.
For the remaining loyalists among Labour MPs and media commentators, these leaks and splashes are all evidence of a conspiracy: either it is a plot by Tories to discredit the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, to prevent their revived Labour Party challenging David Cameron’s government; or else it is a plot by the ‘Blairite’ faction behind David Miliband to undermine leader Ed’s efforts to rebuild Labour’s base.
It is self-flattery on a scale that Blair might recognise for these high-level Labour supporters to present this as a great political struggle over the soul of the Labour Party. Just as it is a fantasy for David Miliband’s remaining supporters in parliament to imagine that everything would be different if only he were their leader. They might all imagine they are engaged in a vibrant and vital clash of visions for the future. But in reality they stand exposed as flogging a dead party.
Whatever the particular motives of those doing the leaking and revealing might be, the result of these gossipy little stories about Blair, Brown, Balls and the Milibands has been to confirm that there really is no longer a big story where Labour is concerned. It has ceased to exist as a party in any meaningful sense, as a collective movement representing a clear constituency with a coherent political philosophy. The ghosts of Labour might still stalk the opinion polls and even win some elections. But in real political terms, all that remains is a corpse fought over by cliques of individuals, none of which stands for anything more than its own personal ambition and petty prejudices – yet none of which is prepared to face up to the fact of Labour’s demise.
The striking thing about the recent reports of New Labour infighting, then and now, is not what they reveal, but what is missing: any sign of politics with a capital P. There is no evidence of a clash of political principles either between Brownites and Blairties in the past, or between the different wings of the Mili-band of brothers in the present. The mud they sling at one another in their supposedly private memos and off-record briefings to journalists is all about personality, image and style rather than political principles, ideas or ideology. This makes for particularly dull exchanges between such a seemingly personality-free collection of nerds and, frankly, turds.
If there are no principles at stake, and no common cause that can hold even the leading players together without trying to scratch one another’s eyes out, then by what definition does Labour still exist as a political party? We are surely nearing the end of the long decline and lingering death of the Labour Party, though those who remain above ground refuse to do the decent thing: send it to Dignitas and bury it.
There have been two stages in the Labour Party’s demise. First it ceased to be Labour in anything but name. Now it has ceased to be a Party anywhere except on its own publicity, which surely invites prosecution under the Trades Descriptions Act.
It ceased to be Labour by the end of the 1980s. Labourism was the outlook of the party formed at the start of the twentieth century to represent the interests of the trade union leaders in parliament. It rose to national prominence along with the power of those union leaders, which appeared to reach its peak in the 1970s. But the rot had already set in. The defeat of the labour movement by the Margaret Thatcher’s Tories in the 1980s marked the end of Labourism as a distinctive political worldview.
The phenomenon of New Labour, which emerged in the 1990s, reflected a recognition by the likes of Blair, Brown and Peter Mandelson that the party’s old constituency of support no longer really existed. They attempted artificially to create a new constituency by appealing to ‘Middle England’, through the media rather than a mass political movement. Yet without any solid political roots, New Labour could only create a shallow base of support. It is now clear from everything that has happened since Blair was first elected in 1997 that while the New Labour elite managed to create an oligarchy around itself, it failed to consolidate a new constituency. Yet as both of the Milibands have shown again this week, all that New Labour leaders can offer is more attempts to distance themselves from the party’s past, without any distinctive vision of the future.
Thus they were left with a ‘party’ without any roots in society, without any core constituency and without any overarching programme or aim beyond its own re-election (a self-defeating aim in those circumstances) – nothing to persuade people to sacrifice their egos and pull together. All of which, as we have argued before on spiked, seriously weakened its immunity to cliquish infighting, personality clashes, temper tantrums, feuds and fallouts among its fragmented leadership, operating in the general atmosphere of a bloody and backstabbing court of medieval kings.
At some stage in this process of withering away, having long since ceased to be Labour, the empty shell stopped being a party at all. The public personality clashes and revelations of grudges and grievances are not, as Miliband D claims, a ‘soap opera’ designed to distract from or divert Labour’s real agenda. They are now all that remains, the very stuff of Labour today.
Yet we are still expected to take seriously the invention of new policies and reported plans for Britain by those who would wrap themselves in a dead party’s clothes and try to outbid one another in their declarations of love for Labour. It is one thing being asked to watch suicide on a television documentary. But being expected to witness competitive necrophilia on the news is surely a step too far for a civilised society.
Mick Hume is editor-at-large of spiked.
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