One nation: Labour turns blue
Ed Miliband invoked the legacy of Benjamin Disraeli in order to embrace the agenda of Blue Labour, argues Paul Demarty
We on the far left, despite our carefully cultivated image as fearless revolutionaries on the avant-garde of history, are quaintly old-fashioned in some ways. For example, we foolishly hold to the quirky old shibboleth that states, ‘The purpose of a party conference is to decide policy.’
Not nearly ‘modernised’ enough a notion for the Labour Party machine in its present state. At least, in the good old days before Blair, Brown and Miliband, Labour tried to pretend its conferences mattered, passing all manner of hotly controversial motions, which would then be ignored by the parliamentary party. Now, the purpose of a party conference is the same in their eyes as it always has been in the Tories’: to provide a platform for leaders to shine, unchallenged, before the bourgeois media.
Not the only thing they borrow from the Tories these days. The start of Labour’s conference was one calculated build-up to the ‘main event’ on Tuesday night - when Ed Miliband announced the new branding for his party. It is apparently the party of ‘one nation’, a phrase cheekily lifted from Benjamin Disraeli in a manner designed to raise a few eyebrows. All the carefully orchestrated buzz the day after focused on that soundbite, and rumours abound that Labour MPs are under orders to drop it into every interview possible.
Until Tuesday, the conference looked like being pretty run-of-the-mill.
Alongside the thin policy announcements and cheap shots at the government, there were the usual gripes and grumbles from those (marginally) to the leadership’s left. The leadership’s present attitude to such insignificant expressions of dissent is, in one sense, the story of a motion. Its text called in essence for the two Eds, Miliband and Balls, to commit to the reversal of the privatisation and marketisation of the national health service in recent decades - it was a model motion, of which numerous variants were submitted by CLPs.1
It was Hull North’s version that finally made it to the conference floor. In order to do so, the constituency had to organise a 200-strong lobby of the conference centre and face down the conference arrangements committee, which first attempted to rule the NHS motions out of order and then attempted to gut them through the compositing process, and possible further tricks (it can be overruled by the NEC, for instance).
This is a pretty substantial amount of effort to go to, just to see a motion voted down by a horde of careerist creeps and apparatchiks; or, failing that, ignored with impunity by Ed Miliband, in time-honoured Labour leadership fashion. It is hardly a great incentive to fight for policy, and it is quite miraculous that enough CLP delegates could be found who were sufficiently masochistic to fight a bureaucratic guerrilla war against the party apparat.
Perhaps these individuals will be heartened by ‘tough talk’ from Unite general secretary Len McCluskey and his Unison counterpart, Dave Prentis. The Eds have endorsed the government’s public sector pay freeze, on the basis that they prefer to keep jobs rather than pay, and it was this matter that exercised the two trade union men: McCluskey called the policy “crazy”, and described the jobs-versus-wages argument as a “false choice”: it is “time for Labour to once and for all turn its back on the neoliberalism of the past”, he concluded.2
It may be that, for once, a union figure as significant as McCluskey is inclined to back up his words with action; until he proves it, we must assume that he is all mouth and no trousers (indeed, subsequent statements have made the latter look very much the more likely state of affairs, as we shall see). On that assumption, the interventions of McCluskey and Prentis are a minor theatrical performance: they make intransigent noises, and the Eds dismiss their statements as irresponsible balderdash.
The Eds get to display their ‘independence’ from the unions (read: cravenness before the capitalist class) for all the world to see. Meanwhile, the union bureaucrats get an extra chance to rally the troops for October 20, and otherwise paint themselves to the left of the Labour leadership. Everybody wins, except public sector workers.
The theatrics are insubstantial, but preferable to the main event - the various statements from the Eds and their shadow-cabinet toadies. Stitching up conference is all very well to appease the swing voters of middle England (read: the bourgeois papers they are gullible enough to believe); everything can be stage-managed to be bang on message (apart from the calculatedly off-message rantings of McCluskey) and editors of The Times, Financial Times and suchlike may be appeased. The late and unlamented polling guru, Philip Gould, would approve.
The sacrifice is ultimately the conferences themselves. By god, these events are dull. Every last spark of life is extinguished in them. Policy announcements are honed down to the humblest tweaks of this collapsing social order. In place of debate, there is a small and browbeaten audience (the hall is rarely full), whose every whimper of mirth or applause is as canned as on an American sitcom, and whose every vox-pop to waiting hacks thronged outside (‘So what did you make of Ed’s speech?’) is impeccably rehearsed.
The effect, on the whole, is like playing with Victorian automata - the first time you set the thing off, some wonder is to be had at the detail in the mechanics of it all. We have had over a decade of such ‘conferences’ from Labour, however, and it is really starting to get tiresome.
‘Tour de force’
What are the Eds’ big ideas? We can take Miliband first, and his theme this year is a very old one indeed: “We are one nation!” he told the assembled faithful no fewer than 46 times in his speech on Tuesday. That was no accident - the patron saint of Miliband’s speech was not Kier Hardie or Sidney Webb, but Benjamin Disraeli.
“Let us remember what Disraeli was celebrated for,” Miliband exhorts us. “It was a vision of Britain where patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all and nobody feels left out. It was a vision of Britain coming together to overcome the challenges we face.” (Must have been grand!) “Disraeli called it ‘one nation’; one nation - we heard the phrase again, as the country came together to defeat fascism, and we heard it again as Clement Attlee’s Labour government rebuilt Britain after the war.”
(And - as an aside - the response of the griping union tops to this bilge? “This is a tour de force. It is the best speech from a Labour leader I have heard and it will offer genuine hope to voters,” gushes McCluskey. “This was the day Ed Miliband showed that he was prime minister material. He delivered a truly inspirational vision of a fairer, united Britain under the next Labour government,” reckons Prentis. ‘Pass the sick bag,’ pleads the nation.)
This rehearsal of one-nation Toryism tells us something about the ideological make-up of Miliband’s inner circle. Above all else, one figure haunts the speech - Maurice Glasman, the idiosyncratic academic and founder of so-called ‘Blue Labour’. The latter’s basic proposition - that working class politics is small-c conservative, concerned with the construction and maintenance of a stable, organic community - is very obviously at work in the one-nation land grab.
There is more to it, though. Miliband’s integral nationalism explicitly reaches out beyond the workers’ movement to small business, to the south as well as the north, and so on - all important components of the indivisible British nation. All these old saws are most associated today with his brother - and in the recent period above all with Tony Blair. The ‘one nation’ concept is an attempt to split the difference between Glasman and the Blairites - undercutting the slickness of the latter with the philosophical grandiosity of the former, and vice versa.
It may be that this nationalist narrative gets your heart-rate up, and causes you spontaneously to break into ‘Land of hope and glory’. If so, you are reading the wrong paper; but more importantly, you probably vote Conservative as a matter of course, and it will take more than an unconvincing lend-lease of moth-eaten Tory jargon to stop you. After all, nobody does Tory jargon like the Tories.
So if the fine phrases do not get you excited, then what of the politics? Sadly, as usual, there wasn’t any. There were pledges on reversing changes to the NHS that - apart from a specific commitment to ditching Andrew Lansley’s bill, which no sane person can take for less than an utter debacle - were simply too vague to amount to anything much. Beyond that, there was an awful lot of guff about how the Tories were bad sorts of people, divisive and ‘unfair’ – which made them enemies of the organic national community, as opposed to ‘one nation’ Labour.
As for Balls, there was the same mix of nostalgic bluster and policy announcements so tiny that you could be forgiven for missing them entirely. At least, in his case, the model was not so much the 1870s as the 1940s - to be precise, the Attlee government, shorn of what radical rhetoric it could muster at the time and incorporated into the great, nauseating national story peddled by Miliband.
For daring even to mention Attlee, Balls got a standing ovation. Apart from that, you know a speech was deathly dull when the headline policy announcement is using the proceeds from selling off the 4G communications infrastructure to build 100,000 new houses.
Escape to victory
It may be asked, exactly how do Miliband and Balls expect to get people excited about a possible Labour government with so little detail about what it would actually do? This would be to miss the point. The excuse offered by both, on several occasions, is that it would be irresponsible to make policy pledges now, when those pledges come due in two or three years, in which time all kinds of things might have happened.
The subtext is this: the strategy adopted by the Labour leadership is to do nothing, and hope that the chaotic flux of capitalist crisis makes the Tories an untenable party of government. Under those circumstances, they will sail into government with the wind behind them. For this to work, it is crucially necessary not to scare off the Confederation of British Industry or the City. Beyond that, it is necessary to have a ‘big idea’, or rather a branding strategy, and a key policy pledge (one nationism and reversing the Lansley bill, respectively), which can then be picked up as the reasons for the bourgeois establishment to back Labour over the Tories in an election.
It is a long shot, and whether it will pay off or not is entirely out of the Labour leadership’s hands. Still, it should be remembered that it was not the masses of the people - most of whom will not have paid any direct attention to the proceedings in Manchester - who were targeted by Miliband’s rhetoric, it was not his own party, and it was not the unions either. It was the press. He has made his pitch, and now he must wait and see.
Those who watch poorer football teams play against better ones will recognise this strategy - keep all the players behind the ball, building a grand defensive shield, and attack only when there is no risk of conceding a goal. Sooner or later, the opposing team will get frustrated and make a fatal mistake, which can then be exploited. As a strategy, it requires patience and discipline, and it bores the socks off the spectators. It has only the one justification: the point of football is to win, no more and no less.
The strategy of the two Eds is directed at exactly the same goal - and no amount of hot air about Benjamin Disraeli will fool anyone as to their true motives.
2. The Guardian October 2.