Thursday, September 29, 2011

Miliband: a symptom, not the cause of Labour's problems

The Labour conference in Liverpool has rather descended into a comedy of errors. The Leader's speech was badly delivered and only patchily coherent. The policies- such as they are- that have emerged from the conference have mostly inspired indifference, but in one or two cases actual hostility. Even the comedy turn of the teenage speaker which seems to infect party conferences from time to time ended up being rather less than it appeared. All in all this conference seems set to cement Ed Miliband's image as a bit of a loser, and to inspire no one with the image of Labour as the party of the future.

Doubtless -as is the way of the media narrative- we will soon have growing stories of plots against the leadership and a lot of "Labour in crisis" headlines. After all electoral defeats after a long period in government tend to underline problems in the party: just ask the Tories what it was like ten years ago. Yet even if Ed Miliband is replaced, it is hard to see which of the other potential leaders could actually deliver a recovery. Labour optimists must surely believe that sooner or later, perhaps after a leader or even two, the political pendulum will start to swing and Labour get another chance as ennui with the Tories kicks in.

But why should the inexorable pendulum of politics be so unerring, and why should a new Labour leader make any difference?

After all, in Scotland, Labour faces a growing crisis.There is a general sense that it is Labour, not the coalition, that is largely responsible for the economic crisis in the UK. There is a general contempt- even among Labour members- for the personality of Tony Blair. So in addition to the normal pendulum there is something more than the usual organisational reaction to a charismatic and successful leader- after Margaret Thatcher, the Conservatives may still struggle to reconcile themselves to her legacy, yet they would not jeer their former leader.

The problem- it seems to me- is that Ed Miliband is not the cause of Labour weakness: he is the symptom, and it would probably be no different if any other candidate had won. 

Labour was, under Harold Wilson, as much as Tony Blair, a pragmatic party, seeking largely to impose its will without too much of an ideological underpinning. In the end, though, the New Labour project was one of the most brazen cynicism, and the policies that the Blair-Brown government enacted have been little short of disastrous. Labour fell under the control of the SpAds and the generally unelected political engineers, such as Peter Mandelson. Yet Mandelson, like Blair himself, has conducted himself, since leaving office, extremely badly. Personal greed has revealed these individuals in the harshest light- no wonder Blair is being booed by his own side. Miliband, like Balls and all the other current potential leadership contenders, grew up within the ideological dead zone of Blairism and under spell of power for its own sake. 

Even as the generation of Labour politicians that grew up under Blair mouths its slogans of compassion or toughness or fairness, the public remembers the self-serving, back biting and most of all the dishonesty of the last Labour government. The Blair generation does not even see how they are seen by the public at large: their experience of politics has been very largely the backroom and the cabinet room and they know no other way. There are like fish out of water as they try to articulate a vision. Yet their focus group intermediated "vision" is itself an artificial construct.

The problem is that the professional political class has lost the strength of authenticity- and Labour as the dominant force during the rise of the political class, is the most tainted. The problems that the country faces require a greater depth of knowledge and expertise than most British politicians possess, but Labour is still trying to fight the lost battles of the past; still seeks to justify its mistakes; still hopes to rewrite the history.

Yet politics must be written in the future, and while the playground politics of New Labour are good entertainment value- especially Alistair Darling's memoirs-  they are very much in the past.

Of course the discrediting of the political class affects the coalition too, but for the time being, the less rancorously personal and more professional relationship between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats is more attractive to the voters than the venom of Labour.

In the end though, this is not meant to be a partisan post: in my view the very nature of politics is overdue a radical change. The bland bromides of every conference wash over the electorate without engaging them. Democracy can not be the preserve of the political class, but must be integrated into the whole of wider society. As single issue groups have become more influential - and gained more members than the inevitable compromise of parties, it is clear that our society is changing beyond the massed politics of the 19th and 20th century. Labour, as a nominally socialist party rooted in the tradition of the massed ranks of trade unions, may have been forced to abandon its  ideology in favour of pragmatic managerialism sooner than the others, and as a result is now the most vulnerable to the dislike of the voters, yet the form of both Conservatives or Liberals also seems unlikely to last another generation.

Although Labour seems totally oblivious to it, the fact is that Politics 2.0 is being constructed as we speak and new and more fundamentally radical ideas are being discussed outside the party political forum than within the stale walls of the party conference season. . 

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