Saturday, 8 November 2014

The Deadzone

The rumour of backbench discontent with Ed Miliband confirms that the general election campaign is underway, however it also tells us something about the nature of the media. With the possible exception of psychopathic dictators, all leaders face internal dissent and doubts about their ability. That's the nature of politics, whether in Westminster or the workplace. What gives this disgruntlement prominence is less a sudden shift in mood so much as creeping boredom. One of the unintended consequences of a fixed-term parliament, or more precisely of the 6-month long demobilisation it gives rise to, is the drying-up of substantive political news. We are in the deadzone, the phoney war. The media has yet to adjust to this new environment.

With the annual party conferences out of the way, the current agenda is being set by external events (the EU surcharge), pratfalls (Theresa May's recruitment and filing problems), the unavoidable bumps in the road that are byelections (now receiving far more coverage than in the past), and post-election policy promises that are barely coherent let alone credible (such as yoking the Universal Credit unicorn to immigration control). The political media is a beast that needs to be fed. If it can't get its meat and two veg, it will make do with prawn crackers, which explains the indulgence of UKIP. Thursday's Newsnight report on the supposed Labour plot saw Laura Kuenssberg squirming with glee at the prospect, while Allegra Stratton read unattributed quotes off her iPad on Hampstead Heath to make them sound more authoritative. Regardless of institutional bias, this was just rubbish journalism: sexed-up and with nowhere to go.

The ostensible trigger for the "Bonfire Night plot" was an editorial in the New Statesman, which shows that Jason Cowley is doing his job in trying to raise the magazine's profile while knowing full well there is plenty of time to fall in line behind Labour before polling day. Rubbish journalism again, but commercially astute. The "attack" recycled the usual ad hominen tropes: "Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. ... Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. ... Reflecting many years afterwards on Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee said: 'We were looking towards the future. The Tories were looking towards the past.' ... None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background." To us civilians, there is no rational explanation for the existence of Dan Hodges other than to make people like Cowley look reasonable in comparison.

The obvious irony is that the famously taciturn Attlee was considered even more uninspiring and lacking in empathy than the current Labour leader, and while he had the advantage of some "real world" experience in local government and the army, his background was very much that of an "old-style Hampstead socialist", despite living up the road in Stanmore: public school and Oxford, a qualified barrister, one-time secretary to Beatrice Webb, LSE lecturer. The fact is that most Labour leaders since the 1930s have tended to be either academics or lawyers, and have been semi-permanent politicians from an early age. It is lazy to imagine that this makes them incapable of understanding "the lower middle class or material aspiration". Beneath the bonhomie, there is a social and philosophical chasm between David Cameron and Essex Man vaster than any that exists between Ed Miliband and the inhabitants of Middle England.

Cowley's substantive criticism was, well, weird: "there exists a gulf between the radicalism of his rhetoric and the low-toned incrementalism of his policies". Call me picky, but I can't see how "one nation" or "responsible capitalism" qualify as radical rhetoric. That said, talking tough and then delivering modest policies is par for the political course, so I'm not convinced that there is anything particularly noteworthy about Miliband's sweet nothings. If anything, his "rhetorical gulf" looks rather narrow. Labour supporters are understandably exasperated at this criticism, both because a change in leader is improbable this side of the general election and because it serves to divert the focus from bread and butter issues such as the standard of living and economic security. They need to get used to it.

The implicit criticism being made by the media is that Labour, like all the other parties, has yet to publish its manifesto. Internal critics who demand an "articulate vision" blithely ignore the political dynamics. Six months ahead of an election is too early to launch key policies, as opposed to gestural bromides, both because their novelty will pall and because too much exposure will leave them vulnerable to critical erosion. A successful campaign requires momentum, and that means starting at the right time. The Autumn Statement in November and the budget in March are the key calendar events, so none of the parties will publish their manifestos before early April, which means another 5 months of bugger-all. It also means that UKIP face a battering if they publish an honest manifesto (i.e. a bonkers one), so expect them to try and sidestep this with "we have only one policy: a referendum now!".

This lack of policy targets has left the anti-Labour media scraping the barrel. The Telegraph has resorted to tempting Griff Rhys-Jones into an early run-through of the traditional "Pete Murray", while recycling the last general election campaign to keep their hand in: "The party’s problem is that it is still run by the same people who crashed the economy into the wall just four years ago. ... They fail to see that a far greater impediment is the ineradicable memory of what the last government did to the country." You can sense the desperation in the choice of the word "ineradicable". The famously Miliband-friendly Daily Mail have inevitably joined the fun, but I sense that they are holding their fire until they think they can get off a kill-shot and pay the Labour leader back for Leveson. Think of it as a dramatic weight-loss diet ahead of their big moment on the red carpet.

The danger of fixed-term parliaments is that the media's appetite for novelty makes it vulnerable to opportunistic insurgents and policies made on the hoof during the phoney war. Boris Johnson's decision to publish his fanboy biography of Winston Churchill seems well-timed.


  1. I think you underplay the “real world” experience of Attlee. Before becoming Prime Minister in 1945 he had spent the war years as Deputy Prime Minister. Along with Ernest Bevin as wartime minister of Labour there can be little doubt that voters in 1945 were voting for people who had played a major part in running the country in the war years.

    The military experience of many 20th Century Politicians is important. Before WWII it would have been well known that “Major” Attlee stood shoulder to shoulder with Thomas Atkins (and his antipodean comrades) at Gallipoli. Even in the 70s and 80s, it’s hard to argue that Lords Whitelaw or Carrington were disconnected from real life when they had smelt the oil flavoured farts of Thomas Atkins in tanks from Normandy to the Rhine. Dennis Healy’s famous hinterland includes a full acquaintance with Mr Atkins at the Anzio beachhead. It’s debatable what effect these experiences had on their political decisions, but from an image perspective, priceless.

    The dreadful Jason Cowley states that “Ed Miliband’s problem is not policy but tone”. I think what he means is Ed Miliband is not entertaining, his act is just not amusing, he is not funny, and his timing is off. What the media demand from our leaders, above all, is entertainment. It’s no accident that the Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage can do value for money turns on Have I Got News For You.

    What should an aspiring leader of the left be doing? Forget PPE at the Oggsford college she should hone her skills on the standup circuit. No sense in trying to acquire a deep understanding of the economic and social problems of the UK. The route to Number 10 is via the Edinburgh Fringe.

    1. No current politician is going to look good when compared to those born before the 1920s, but that reflects historic opportunity rather than intrinsic merit. Angela Merkel's backstory hardly stands comparison to that of Willy Brandt.

      My point is that Cowley's contrast of Miliband with Attlee is mischievous (in Labour mythology, none can stand comparison to the Major), but it also depends on a rightwing trope, the "old-style Hampstead socialist", that was specific to a particular historic period (Attlee's, as it happens).

      I agree that a good standup routine is probably as valuable to a modern politician as an Oxford PPE, but that has always been the way. Disraeli and Gladstone may not have employed knob-gags, but they knew how to work an audience.

  2. You said that by-elections are receiving a lot more attention than in the past. How far back though? I can remember by-elections in the late Thatcher era, such as Mid-Staffs and Vale of Glamorgan, getting a lot of publicity, while the Langbaurgh by-election (where I lived at the time) was also given a lot of significance, partly because Labour gained it quite narrowly and it was possibly a premonition of what was to come 6 months later in April 1992.
    Recent by-elections have made the news mainly because they tie in with the rise of UKIP, the media's favourite story. I can't recall many of the by-elections of the Blair era at all.

    1. By-elections have always had significance, and thus publicity, but they are receiving even more attention now (by which I mean since the end of conference season) because of the deadzone effect. There are two aspects to this. The first is simply the lack of other political news.

      The second is that a byelection that falls in the last 6 months of a fixed-term parliament will inevitably be treated by the media as an undercard for the main fight. In the past, when a general election could be called at any time, there was no way of knowing where a particular ballot stood in terms of that parliament's narrative. The media now have a clear script.

      Clacton and Heywood & Middleton, which occured after conference season, received more media attention that Wythenshawe & Sale and Newark, which occured before the summer recess and the winding down of government business. A part of this can be attributed to the media's fascination with UKIP, but I'd suggest that this fascination is driven by the imminent general election and a lack of other news as much as Nigel Farage's media management skills.

  3. «Beneath the bonhomie, there is a social and philosophical chasm between David Cameron and Essex Man vaster than any that exists between Ed Miliband and the inhabitants of Middle England.»

    That's precisely the problem: low middle and middle class English voters think instead that they are on the side of David Cameron; they think that after all they both are property owners and both resent the constant attempts of the poor and working classes to squeeze them with taxes to pay themselves huge benefits.

    The low and middle middle classes want what I call a "plantation economy" as badly as Cameron and his ilk do,, because they think that they will end up in the mansions on the sunny uplands as landladies of the plantation, or at least in the picturesque cottages for the trusties just below the mansions, not in the squalid slums for the losers in the swampy lowlands.

    What they want is higher property prices most of all. Ever higher. Because they think that don't need good pay, or good pensions, or reasonable welfare, or safe jobs, because they can make a lot more with tax-free capital gains that they can cash in with remortgages at very low interest rates. My usual numbers:
    «In 2001, the average price of a house was £121,769 and the average salary was £16,557, according to the National Housing Federation. A decade on, the typical price of a property is 94% higher at £236,518, while average wages are up 29% to £21,330»

    In the South East that means a two-up-two-down terrace house, that has given £12,000 a year tax free to a low middle class owner who bought it in 2001, and that might be nearly doubling their after tax income.

    The other thing they want is lower wages and more immigration, because cheap hired help is always difficult to find.

    These voters used to be called "Essex man", but swing voters in marginal seats are mostly C1 and C2 women middle aged to retired who live in the South East, who are the biggest owners of property (thanks to divorce and widowhood), and who aspire to live like gentlefolk in their remortgaged micro manors.

    As Cowley hints, these people are not at all social-democratic, they are the pettiest meanest tories (with a lower case "t"), because they are terrified of losing their new found prosperity and safety. They want ASBOs, and demand authoritarian policies against anybody who might even remotely look menacing.

    Blair and Cameron managed to seduce even these petty mean southern tories by talking to them in the right tone, as Cowley says, and by never boasting in public about using their votes to also pass social democratic policies like the transformative tax credit for poor workers.

    Where Cowley is wrong is that he does not qualify as much as he does his arguments with "Southern", because the same low and middle middle classes outside the South have completely different and far more social-democratic attitudes, also because they have not been poisoned by the greed for higher property prices and lower wages.