Friday, 24 April 2015

So You Want To Be a Rock 'n' Roll Star?

One of the odder features of this general election is that Ed Miliband may be the only party leader who actually wants to be Prime Minister. While there is still an element of "Go, nerd!" about it, the milifandom meme works because of his evident appetite for a role that other party leaders seem to be lukewarm about at best or disdain at worst. This could be simple naivety on his part, but I think it chimes with a popular assumption that candidates for Number 10 should at least display determination, which perhaps explains why Boris Johnson is now being wheeled out on the national stage. I always thought the Tories were making a mistake in caricaturing Miliband as Wallace, given that the stop-motion icon is an epitome of decency whose busy projects are well-meaning and human-scale. If the Labour leader had invested in a beagle five years ago, he'd surely be miles ahead in the popularity stakes now.

Cameron has already confirmed that he'll stand down as PM before the end of the next Parliament, if successful, without ever having convinced us that he really wanted the job in the first place (if Johnson consciously echoes Churchill, Cameron unconsciously echoes Halifax). He has always come across as someone who regarded it as an entitlement, rather than an achievement, with the inevitable result that his premiership has been marked by little principle and much opportunism, from the flip-flop on economic policy to the serial exploitation of Scotland. One of the unintended consequences of the resurrection of John Major this week was to remind us that the last Tory party leader to win an outright majority never gave in to the eurosceptic "bastards", whereas Cameron has conceded a referendum on the EU that will likely split the party in two, whatever the outcome.

I suspect the judgement of history will be that Cameron marked the decadence of the modern Conservative Party - i.e. the electoral legacy of Churchill and Macmillan. Though Thatcher is considered a "clean-break" by both supporters and critics, she was a traditionalist whose impact owed much to timing and her inability to imagine the consequences of globalisation and the resurgence of finance capital. Her admiration of Hayek and Friedman was philosophical, not technocratic ("economics is the method, the object is to change the soul"), which explained her romantic sympathy for her patrician predecessors and her dislike of Ted Heath. If Major marked an attempt by the Tories to reconnect with their inner Macmillan, he also revealed the impossibility of such nostalgia as the party started to fray under the social and economic tensions of the era, from sleaze to the ERM. The Cameron re-brand has been marked by one defeat after another, but none of them decisive: the waste of economic stagnation, marginalisation in Europe, the failure of deficit reduction. Same-sex marriage (trivial in historic terms, if you compare its impact to divorce or abortion) will probably be his only memorable achievement.

Nick Clegg long ago gave up even the pretence of presenting himself as a clean-cut alternative PM, instead trying to recast the LibDems as the domestic political equivalent of the UN Blue Berets: a higher form of civilisation trying to pacify the antagonistic locals. This reveals the de haut en bas worldview of establishment liberals that is normally obscured by the voluble party membership with their fondness for dog-shit and the sort of gestural policies that have now found a home with the Greens. Nicola Sturgeon is getting plenty of air-time, despite not standing as an MP and already being First Minister of Scotland, but her whole raison d'etre is that she does not want to be Prime Minister of the UK. Despite the Tory scare-mongering to the contrary, the SNP (who are close readers of the history of Irish independence) will keep their distance from Westminster entanglements. Just as Labour haven't forgotten 1979, neither have the Nats.

Everyone agrees that Nigel Farage has lost his spark, which is variously attributed to illness (i.e. too much booze), tiredness (i.e. too much booze) or the lack of anything interesting to say other than "blame the immigrants". My favourite conspiracy theory is that he has been bought-off by a Tory promise of a peerage if he fails to win South Thanet. In fact, UKIP always knew that they would do well to keep their head above water in a general election. They're a cup-team, which means they thrive as a protest vote in by-elections and when they can maximise their core support in low-turnout European elections. We're now in the run-in of the league season, where attention shifts to the challengers for the title (Labour and Tories) and those in danger of the drop (the LibDems). Farage has understandably adopted a defensive, core-vote strategy, which is why insulting the BBC audience in the second leaders' debate was a calculated ploy rather than evidence he'd over-indulged in the green room.

Outside of general elections, UKIP provide a sharp stick with which the media can prod the main parties, not so much to advance a particular agenda (though there is a fair bit of that, given the prejudices of press barons) but to generate embarrassments and mini-outrages that will attract readers and viewers. UKIP give good clickbait. The drying-up of media attention does not reflect an establishment conspiracy so much as the temporary redundancy of the party as a goad and the surfeit of "wind-ups" provided by party media machines, both overtly and covertly, from "Scottish mayhem" to Grant Shapps's sock-puppetry. Once the election is over, and particularly if the Tories form a government and maintain the commitment to a referendum, UKIP will emerge from its burrow as Europe moves back up the agenda.

The media's focus on the the post-election negotiations to come is tedious, but its allows them to sneer at all the parties even-handedly and thus reinforce the ideological assumption that democracy is inadequate and that the will of the people, whether in Scotland or Greece, must be resisted if it steps beyond acceptable bounds. Though some centrist die-hards continue to extol the benefits of coalition, most UK commentators prefer to predict chaos and illegitimacy. This obviously serves the neoliberal agenda of arrogating more and more of the social sphere to the control of the market and its supra-democratic institutions. Naturally, if the Tories and LibDems can command a majority once more (with the help of the DUP, perhaps), this will instantly be presented as stability and continuity and thus "good news for the markets".

I think Ed Miliband's improving popularity (which, let's be honest is too little and too late) owes something to the apparent respect he has shown for democracy during the campaign, both in his love-bombing of the electorate (all those heartfelt straight-to-camera pitches) and his refusal to be drawn into pre-election stitch-ups (admittedly, this may just be tactical good sense rather than principle). While other party leaders casually alienate large blocs of the electorate (the Scots, non-Kippers), or simply write them off (all those ex-LibDems), Miliband seems determined to appeal to as many people as possible, rather than settle for the "35 per cent strategy" of recent myth (another early claim of impending illegitimacy). It may not work, but at least it means that someone is prepared to campaign in an open and inclusive manner. As Obama found (and Miliband, like most Labour wonks, is enamoured of Democrat Party practice), the "hopey-changey" thing can make a difference.


  1. As your last paragraph demonstrates, the Miliband 'people's party' strategy is still largely that of 'New Labour'. I think the problem is that the long Labour decline after the Iraq War has dented the 'brand' and, unfortunately for him, Ed Miliband lacks the salesmanship and insincere platitudes that were the roots of the success of Blair, Clinton and Obama.

  2. As a nation of animal lovers, if only the Labour party had elected a hyper intelligent beagle as leader we would now be storming away in the polls. "The Lad" needs to added to the long list of great leaders of the Labour party we never had.

    There seems to be a concensus that the Tories have been too negative and some of them at least are trying to put a more positive message across. There has also been much talk of the shy conservative factor which may prove decisive.

    Is there anything you would have liked to see the Labour party do different? Or do in the last two weeks?

    Personally I don't think they have made good use of some of their best people. I have seen very little of Yvette Cooper on telly, but I always think of her as one of the better TV performers. They could also have got Alistair Darling to come out and defend the Labour handling of the Great Financial Crisis. If they have done this I must have missed it.

    1. Ed Balls made a decent fist of predicting the mess that austerity would make, but he allowed himself to be drawn into conceding that increased deficits are a regrettable diversion from fiscal orthodoxy, when they are precisely what macroeoconomic orthodoxy recommends in a recession. Had he been brave enough to rubbish the credit-card and roof-fixing nonsense, he would have been in a better position to profit from Osborne's u-turn in 2012. On this, as in a number of areas, Labour needed to play a longer game.

      They should also have critiqued the increase in personal allowances (which subsidises crap wages and degrades tax morale) as part of a wider campaign to shift the tax base from consumption to property. Banging on about VAT rises is all well and good, but the mansion tax is a paltry thing. The electorate know that property is under-taxed, and with more and more of them unable to own, fewer and fewer have a self-interest in this state of affairs. In fact, taxes on property (and land) are likely to be the quickest route to falling housing costs and increased housebuilding.

      This would have taken bravery, given the hegemonic belief that cutting personal allowances is "taking people out of tax" and that higher property taxes kill little old ladies, but it would have allowed Labour both to champion tax as the price of civilisation and to attack the LibDems as opportunistic hypocrites.

      Labour should also have been more adroit over the Scottish independence referendum, either treating it as a free-vote (so pro-independence Labour supporters didn't feel ostracised), or at least avoiding sharing a platform with the Tories. The party's decline in Scotland has many causes and dimensions, but chief among them has been the evidence of a tin-ear.