Lack of style over substance
Miliband’s plea for less superficiality in politics is, itself, a superficial publicity stunt - and, reckons Paul Demarty, a stupid one at that
A famous quip, attributed variously to Jean Giraudoux, George Burns and Groucho Marx, runs: “The most important thing in life is sincerity. If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”
Thus, we find Ed Miliband in fine fettle, telling people not to vote for him. (How novel!) “If you want the politician from central casting, it’s not me; it’s the other guy,” he told a London audience on July 25. “If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don’t vote for me.”
‘Red’ Ed’s concern about the superficiality of mainstream bourgeois politics is palpable. “So often the terms of trade of politics - the way it is discussed and rated - have become about the manufactured, the polished, the presentational. This is not new, but it has got worse.”
“Politicians have fuelled it,” he continues. “The media feed it, but this political culture is a disaster for the country. Because let’s face up to something: this has become a game that fewer and fewer people are watching, or believing.” Instead, he wants to be a leader of substance: “someone with big ideas and the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard.”
We would love to break out into spontaneous applause. There is, however, the small matter that this is obviously an exercise in public image management. Having attracted ridicule for looking like Wallace, the bumbling Wiganer from Wallace and Gromit, and also for eating a bacon sandwich in a “weird” way, he wants to make a virtue out of adversity: he wants to appear to be more than meets the eye. ‘The most important thing in politics is substance,’ he wants to say: ‘If you can provide a superficial semblance of that, the votes will pour in.’
Because, let’s be honest - this is not Ed going off script. This terribly ‘honest’ speech will have been cooked up to order by a legion of spin doctors, pollsters and wonks; it is a product of the same machine politics that Miliband describes as alienating. How could it be otherwise?
We must consider what it is he wants from this move. On that front, we must call it defensive. Miliband’s approval ratings lag consistently behind Labour’s poll figures, reaching a nadir last month. He is a point of weakness as an individual. Moreover, with Lynton Crosby running the Conservative election campaign, Labour will be expecting a lot of the negative stories that got Crosby such a stellar reputation down under. This speech puts up some defences against the shallowest of Crosby’s attacks, and attempts to recast Miliband’s ‘weirdness’ as a lofty disinterest in ‘looking the part’.
A rigged game
Will it work? We are not optimistic. Firstly, Miliband says people want politicians with big ideas. What is your big idea, Ed? ‘One nation Labour’? ‘Responsible capitalism’? ‘Blue Labour’? Trite soundbites, one and all; just as insubstantial as David Cameron’s ‘big society’, or any of the 10 fatuous fads Tony Blair went through in the period 1994-97. We can already see, in our mind’s eye, the right-populist billboard slogans under a Miliband government: ‘One nation for them, another for the rest of us …’ Miliband’s big subsequent announcement was public participation in the parliamentary charade known as prime minister’s questions - a gimmick so obviously shallow that we will waste no further words on the matter.
Ed is not an ‘ideas man’, and his shadow cabinet is not bustling with innovative political thought either. It is utterly plain that he and his allies are playing the same technocratic pollster game as the politicians he criticises for being focused on image. A speech so obviously hypocritical is a big, easy target for Crosby and his mates in the rightwing press.
Secondly, Miliband warns: “The public’s antennae for the artificiality, the triviality, the superficiality of politics is more highly tuned than ever.” Probably true (presumably his polling gurus have asked around) … But our antennae are also alert to fresh-faced politicians claiming not to be like the old lot, that they will do a ‘new’ kind of politics, without the spin and braying partisanship and everything else everyone hates. That was the foundation of ‘Cleggmania’, of David Cameron’s ‘compassionate Conservatism’ and again of Blairism. Politicians as a caste have promised such change, and delivered nothing, far too many times to be taken seriously.
Thirdly, a politician’s public image is the creature and property of the media. If the media are with you, any image you put forward will be enthusiastically burnished by unscrupulous hacks. If they are not, you will not be able to do anything right. That is the difference between ‘Silent’ Calvin Coolidge, US president at the height of the roaring 20s, and the “quiet man”, Iain Duncan Smith, in his disastrous leadership of the Tory party - in the vacuous ‘showbiz politics’ decried by Miliband, the very same personal attribute can be the subject of ridicule or acclaim.
The media are not with Miliband. They have red-baited him, mocked his mannerisms, abetted Blairite plots against him, pitched every setback as a humiliation and minimised every victory. It is not 1997 - the media, and that section of the capitalist class whom the media may be said to represent, do not want a Labour government. And so Miliband’s speech will be sold as vacuous and hypocritical. The Daily Telegraph has already run a scabrous op-ed by Boris Johnson (July 28):
I have gone back to the text of his great let’s-have-ideas-not-spin speech. I have read every word. I have sieved it and strained it for the smallest crouton of substance, anything at all that you could get your teeth into … it is a watery and flavourless consommé of nothingness. There is absolutely nothing that corresponds to an idea that is either new or big; just a couple of paragraphs in which he makes a passing allusion to some of his small, old, bad ideas - before he gets back to the subject that he thinks is really important: viz, his so-called image problem, the size of his teeth, etc, etc.
We can expect much more of the same. Miliband is trying to play a rigged game, that is - under present circumstances - rigged specifically against him. Barring an acute crisis that renders the Tories an utterly implausible option next May (such things can happen, but tend not to), he will not win this battle; it will not become his version of John Major’s soapbox moment. We wonder why it is that so many highly-paid spin doctors are unable to grasp the simple fact that such desperate coquetry is redundant.
The truth is that bourgeois politicians are almost by definition prohibited from laying out an honest policy. Let us imagine Ed really going off script: ‘If you vote for me, I will do everything in my power to please the City, cutting whatever social services the square mile doesn’t like and privatising the state enterprises it wants a piece of. While the beneficiaries of this largesse will be permitted to squirrel their profits away in Luxembourg or the Caymans, we’ll do alright by taxing the legal and other fees incurred, as mostly fictitious capital is shuffled around aimlessly among the very rich. This will create many jobs, mainly in serving the lawyers coffee.’
That is what he can actually deliver - he is limited, as all bourgeois politicians are, by his commitment to the British state and its concrete interests, over and above the whims of mere governments. Those interests are based overwhelmingly on the financial services industry in London. There is a tendency among soft lefts to call Tory economic policy ‘ideological’; in fact, Tory economic policy is entirely objective, and it is the particular justifications that are ‘ideological’. Miliband is trapped on the same terrain. He cannot promise anything more attractive, so he promises nothing.
Power without purpose
None of this means that he will necessarily lose in 2015. The media are powerful, but hardly omnipotent and are not guaranteed to get the result they want, even though countervailing institutions in former times (trade unions, for instance), are weaker than they once were. People do not always believe what they read (the majority of Sun readers vote Labour, for instance).
More pertinently, Miliband is correct on several points: people are, by and large, well aware that bourgeois politics is a cynical game, and it has made them cynical themselves. This is expressed in a secular decline in voter turnout, and in increased support for what were traditionally protest votes (the UK Independence Party, the Scottish National Party …).
These two factors together mean that a mediocre vote on a miserable turnout could give Labour an anaemic parliamentary majority, or at least leave it as the largest party. Underneath the guff about big ideas, this is what Miliband is aiming for - power without ambition, without purpose and without a mandate.