We are Gromit - the challenge for Ed Miliband

Can Labour give voice to the energy and anger of England, which from its health service to its fundamental liberties, not to speak of its economy, is threatened by the Coalitions embrace of global finance? Anthony Barnett posed the question to Ed Miliband in the New Statesman's special Labour Party conference edition.

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“We believe that every individual should be afforded the fullest opportunity for developing his or her personality . . .”

“Life without liberty is not worth living.”

Clement Attlee, supporting the declaration of war in 1939, and justifying Labour joining the coalition with the Conservatives in 1940

The Syria debate and vote in the House of Commons showed Ed Miliband’s qualities in the face of Cameron’s misjudgments. He is capable of being an exceptionally effective opposition leader, brave and an adroit party manager. Nor, if he was as incapable as his detractors say, would Labour have held a continuous – and, in the present electoral system, winning – lead in the polls since he took over in 2010. Few, however, feel he is heading for a decisive victory in 2015 and with the kind of majority he would need to redefine British politics in the way he says he wishes. His attackers have a point. The will to change things seems missing. Where is the anger against a cynical and deceitful coalition government?

Why isn’t Miliband storming the length and breadth of England to save the National Health Service from marketisation? The promise of a release of energy must accompany a new government. Instead, Miliband’s tone seems placid. He addresses Labour with a sense of urgency, but not the country and he has yet to take his party decisively through the Plimsol line of 40 points needed to beat back the surge governing parties organise before the ballot.

Instead, what we can call “the Ukip factor” will surely decide the outcome of the election in 2015. And Ukip’s trumpet does sound a clear, high-energy call for change, even if you think its implications hover over Britain like one of Don DeLillo's airborne toxic events. Indeed, without a single MP, Ukip can claim to have gained the most ideologically from the Syrian turning point in Britain’s parliamentary history.

The polls are clear: Labour’s support has never faltered below the high to mid-thirties; the Tories are stranded in the lower thirties. With Ukip defiantly above 10 points, its supporters can give the Tories a majority if they so choose. David Cameron and George Osborne understand this: their strategy is now aimed at winning them over, encouraging hostility to immigrants, promising an EU pseudo-referendum (assuring their friends in the City they will ensure Britain never votes to leave). attracting Ukip supporters. Labour must choose between betting everything on Ukip retaining its following and winning thanks to the division of the right, or pitching to win Ukip fellow-travellers, most of whom loathe Cameron.

The passivity of the former strategy might be the safer course, if Ukip were a stable party. It is not and could easily implode while its followers remain up for grabs. Imagine if Cameron were forced to exit the scene thanks to some not impossible accident. Were he to be replaced by Boris Johnson, in an electoral pact with Nigel Farage and backed by Rupert Murdoch (who has had each to dinner), Labour would be blown away. I am not predicting this will happen, simply demonstrating that Miliband has yet to design an approach that stands a chance against an energetic alliance of the right. He has kept his own party together and potentially electable, a considerable achievement, but what next? What is the difference between the direction he wishes to take and the current Conservative-led government’s?

If you are taken in by the idiots of the moment and regard Ed as a dithering vulture, the question is otiose. In fact, especially for a Labour leader of the opposition, Miliband is far-sighted and influential. Three examples that pre-date his Syrian success show he has the capacity if not yet the public character to change Britain’s course.

In a deadly, professional campaign he beat the favourite, his elder brother, David, to win the leadership and tear the party away from Blairism. He did so by declaring that the Iraq war was “wrong”. This was long after Barack Obama had done the same in the United States, to be sure. Yet, however minimal, it was essential to prevent Labour from irreconcilable internal division. Alas, Westminster is even more implicated in subservience to Washington than Washington itself. When the slavish presumption of our political/media class that it crowns the Labour leader was confounded, “the unions” were blamed and Ed was accused of betraying his brother. What was unforgivable was not fratricide but mediacide. Not a single leading figure or newspaper that backed the Iraq war has said that, on this still-defining issue, Ed Miliband was right. Indeed, the BBC reported that he merely “regretted” the Iraq war (who doesn’t?), as if he had never broken ranks from the political class at all.

From the beginning Miliband’s leadership has been marked by the media’s reluctance to give him due credit. Almost immediately he declared that he wanted to represent the interests of the “squeezed middle”. The increasingly ludicrous John Humphrey, snorting at rather than interviewing, defied him to explain what this meant while subjecting the new Labour leader’s answers to a tirade of scoffing and denigration. Far from being ridiculous, he was simply describing the way a majority now suffers diminishing living standards even when there is economic growth, reversing the historic expectations and promise of the western economies. Today everyone recognises the truth of this. No one credits the Labour leader for being one of the first to say it.

Third, after Murdoch backed Margaret Thatcher in 1979 he exercised unbroken influence over British politics for three decades. Few braves resisted his feared capacity for retribution and, after Cameron assured the media mogul of his support, the further expansion of Murdoch’s reach through the takeover of BSkyB seemed unstoppable in spite of the phone-hacking scandal. Then Miliband had the courage to say “basta” and demanded the resignation of Rebekah Brooks, the then chief executive of News International as well as an important ally of the Cameron-Blair federation. I discuss the moment in After Murdoch and his persistence in the Commons vote in Murdoch and the Big Lie). Ed Miliband did not simply defy Rupert he stopped the dynastic succession of James Murdoch to the top of an enlarged global media conglomerate. It is exceptional for any leader of the Opposition to have changed the whole matrix of power in the UK in such a fashion, arguably there is no equivalent episode. It is an historic achievement.

Young yet experienced in high office, Miliband has proved that he has courage and is far-sighted. He is also personally considerate in an age of bullies. He chooses to think and deliberate when most about him bluster. This quality especially enrages what was once the world’s coolest ruling class, that used to play the long game and admire the stiff upper lip. Today, it salivates for ‘decisiveness’ while 10 Downing Street denounced the leader of the opposition as a f****** c***. They claim that he “wobbled” over Syria when asked to approve war with a day’s notice. (In fact as Peter Oborne has researched and set out, it was the Prime Minister’s office that was devious). Rather, he held together a party that stretches from peaceniks to warmongers and brought it to the right place without being bounced.

Indeed, and it’s a very big if, should the US and Russia neutralise Syria’s chemical stockpiles it could be partly thanks to Miliband’s insistence that evidence and process take priority over a commitment to war.

If Miliband is so good, why is he so inadequate? Here are two reasons: Ed Balls and one nation. UK government debt was £760bn in 2010; it is projected to be £1.4trn in 2015. The currently celebrated levels of growth won’t dent this. Osborne’s claims of success are hollow. But it was clear from 2010 that his game was to create enough economic activity by the election to enable the Tories to campaign on the ticket of “Don’t let Labour ruin it”. That is why they decided to give themselves five rather than four years when they introduced fixed parliamentary terms. Even if Osborne is subsidising another housing bubble to achieve the growth he needs politically, he was bound to gain some bounce seven years after the crash. What was essential was to foresee this, not deny it, and pillory the Chancellor’s overall direction.

To achieve this, however, Labour can’t defiantly insist that its economic policies through the Noughties were broadly right until the banks overborrowed and spoiled matters. “Don’t blame me, it was my reckless bankers” isn’t credible and, rightly, no one believes it, including those who say they will vote Labour, and especially those who say they can’t as they don’t want to go back to boom and bust. Balls of late has preferred to endorse Osborne’s austerity rather than admit that he and Gordon Brown got so much wrong and that this has become a potentially fatal millstone. Miliband has cut Labour free of Blairism to make it electable but he must now emancipate it from Brownism in order to win.

However, Balls can’t take all the blame for his leader’s difficulties. At last year’s party conference in Manchester, Miliband confounded his detractors by delivering a bravura speech. Speaking without notes, he wrapped himself and his party in the cloak of Disraeli. “One-nation Labour” replaced “New Labour”. Yet this fully contrived achievement also contributed to his present troubles. For although his main collaborator on the text, Mark Stears, argues for 'agonistic' rather than consensus politics and has set out the case for British politics to be refreshed by an "everyday democracy" rather than looking to the state or the market, the concept of ‘One Nation’ is both consensual and very much a notion inspired by the imperial state.

The positioning of 'One Nation' is a strategic conceit. With Cameron and Clegg hell-bent on a revolutionary shake-up of traditional government and of the state, upending even the NHS, combined with an ‘unBritish’ permissiveness of greed and excess without even the ballast of Thatcherite puritanism, people will surely want a restoration of order and good sense. The subtext of One Nation Labour is: “We are the conservatives now. Don’t let the Tories ruin it.” And this reinforces Ed Balls’ pitch for responsible economic management (and his wife, Yvette Cooper’s line on strong policing and surveillance).

Thus premise of “One Nation Labour” is that the UK is as fundamentally conservative and trusting of the stat and the governing class. It isn’t. The country including trade unionists likes change. Modern Britain is inconceivable were this not so. The danger for Labour is that the double-act of the two Eds is created a Gaitskell scenario. He was the Labour leader who replaced Attlee but lost the 1959 election. Amazingly he could not defeat a Tory party responsible for the shambles of Suez because he was unable to shake off the impression that, “the Tories were more convincing as the party of liberty and progress: Labour by contrast seemed conservative and cheeseparing” (to quote from the scintillating account of An English Affair by Richard Davenport-Hinds).

The “One Nation” approach runs the danger of appearing cramped and regressive and has at least three big specific problems: it offers no criticism of the British state; it implies no fundamental clash with vested interests; and, anyway, the UK is more than one nation.

Is there any way of turning things round and saving the UK from a further five years of the Coalition? A break from “New Labour” was only the essential first step. Tony Blair embraced what I described at the time as a manipulative “corporate populism”. His model of how power should be exercised was that of a multinational corporation rather than a democratic state. The ideal form of consent was persuading consumers to embrace the brand. Thankfully, despite its initial blossoming, New Labour’s political culture failed to graft on to British politics. But his successors Cameron and Clegg are the heirs to Blair’s legacy, intent on doing everything they can to ensure that the “Americanisation” of the British state and the penetration of a “neoliberal” political economy, which shatters solidarity and the public interest, is irreversible.

Miliband’s Labour could be the last possible line of defence against this fate. That’s why, even if like me you want to see capitalism replaced rather than improved into a better version as Miliband declares, we should think about how he can discard the moth-eaten cloak of Disraelism and frustrate the Coalition at the polls. No single mortal, however, can turn back the British elite’s embrace of corporate populism by winning an election. It will demand a new direction from the get-go – one that gathers wide and passionate support strong enough to reverse the course taken by Cameron and Clegg.

To achieve this, Miliband and his team need to do two big things. First of all they need to flag their character with a number of clear commitment to the immediate action they will take on gaining office, the timing in any manifesto statement being at least as important as the content. Here are some ideas:

  1. Pledging to pass a bill restoring the NHS within a month of taking office (David Owen, the former leader of the Social Democratic Party, has already drafted it); Andy Burnham’s so-called whole-life approach to health by meshing the health service with the social services is needed but will take time, and the corporate health providers need to be warned off now.
  2. Pledging the immediate introduction of Geoffrey Bindman’s proposal to take 10 per cent of all individuals’ legal earnings over £150,000 a year to pay for free access to the law for the poor and vulnerable.
  3. Pledging to restore the basis of liberty with the immediate termination of the storage of everyone’s metadata, which maps all our communications, and ending the commitment to wholesale surveillance that makes everyone a suspect rather than a citizen in the eyes of the state.

We can all add other proposals (such as lowering the age of voting to 16 and making voting compulsory, and also adding “none of the above” on the ballot paper, as IPPR has proposed). Another could be the significant devaluation of sterling as a necessary (though not sufficient) condition for manufacturing revival, as John Mills has argued in the Devalue or Else Debate. My point is not to draw up a final list but to illustrate the outlines of an argument. Without incurring any financial costs, Miliband can make the audacity and character of his incoming government exquisitely clear.

If he doesn’t, what is the point? Without pledges which say: “This is the immediate difference Labour will make” another unmistakable message will be heard, namely that “there’s no difference between the lot of them”. This in turn will incite people to vote with jaundice in their hearts, if they vote at all.

Yet, even though it is essential for Labour to clarify its battle cry, no menu of commitments can address the core issues crystallised by Ukip that have brought it to its pivotal position. For Ukip is a crab-like, distorted expression of pain over the plight of Britain’s sovereignty and constitution. Immigration as an “issue” is about who we are and the nature of our democracy.

The sound of Ukip is a loud denunciation of the way we are governed – the dishonesty, evasiveness and hypocrisy of the Westminster “political class”, a phrase Nigel Farage uses so forcefully. Ukip’s call to leave the EU is plainly an argument over constitutional sovereignty. Most important of all, linking these assertions that our political system is broken, is the way Ukip draws strength, despite its name, from its role as the English party. As IPPR’s Guy Lodge has carefully shown, its rise represents the increasing number of citizens in England, now over 70 per cent by one measure, who describe themselves as being English rather than British. Deprived of any healthy forms of expression, their sense of self-identification finds its outlet in the “plain speaking” of Nigel the stockbroker.

So the second thing that the opposition needs to do is to speak for England. It has to liberate a healthy, tolerant, pluralist Englishness from the strangulated, heartfelt rage of those who join Ukip’s ranks and find themselves trapped in its deranged prejudice against the EU; its absurd concoction that the UK can take on the world single-handed as a “trading nation”; and its mobilisation of the fear of immigrants. All of these draw sustenance from a reasonable desire for England to enjoy self-determination just like any other country (although more tolerant and goodhumoured and with a longer tradition than most, going back at least to Shakespeare).

Win over the positive energy of England and Ukip will be marginalised – and it is the English NHS that must be saved after all. Speaking for England does not mean talking down to it. If England were part of a reconfigured federal Britain we would have our own constitutional court to adjudicate whether EU laws have democratic legitimacy, according to our own governing principles, just as the Bundesverfassungsgericht does for the Federal Republic of Germany. With honest foundations for our political system, we could lay a basis for a return of integrity in public life.

Made aware of the centrality of the issue by MPs like John Denham and Jon Cruddas, Miliband was persuaded last year that he had to engage with Englishness with a set-piece speech. His approach was to add onto a traditional appeal for the Union and Britishness, an insistence on the need for Labour to “talk about England”. Miliband said:

“We in the Labour Party have been too reluctant to talk about England in recent years. We’ve concentrated on shaping a new politics for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. And this was one of the greatest achievements of the last government. We have rightly applauded the expression of Scottish identity within the United Kingdom. But for too long people have believed that to express English identity is to undermine the United Kingdom. This does not make sense. You can be proudly Scottish and British. And you can be proudly English and British . . . We have been too nervous to talk of English pride and English character . . . Now more than ever, as we make the case for the United Kingdom throughout the United Kingdom, we must talk about England.”

Talk is good. But what should Labour actually say about England? On this he was Ed the Silent. If, when Labour shaped “a new politics” for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, this was one of its “greatest achievements” as he claims, why the pusillanimity of not now proposing to shape “a new politics” for England?

Instead, Miliband praised Englishness as an addition to Britishness, as if it were a perfume that could smell sweet even to socialists, or certainly social democrats. He could not identify any positive aspects of the English character. Rather, he identified many but they were all human positives that failed to distinguish the English from other good people.

He suggested dogged “determination” (not self-determination) as a special form of Englishness as manifested in “the spirit of the Blitz” – as if Cardiff, Glasgow and Belfast had not been blasted by the Luftwaffe. He attempted a trick John Major tried to pull arguing against devolution, saying: “I don’t detect a longing for more politicians.” This is the response of monopolists everywhere resisting competition. “It’s not,” Miliband stated, “about an English Parliament or an English Assembly. The English people don’t yearn for simplistic constitutional symmetry.”

But how do we know what the English yearn for when they have never been asked? Here, Miliband exhibits rather than resists the phobia of the Westminster political/media class and its fear of the English. It is entirely the wrong reaction, with distrust breeding distrust and enhancing Ukip’s cantankerous influence which makes them distrust the English even more.

There is a genuine problem; it is hard to convince the English themselves, especially the English middle classes, who even while being squeezed do not wish to be considered narrow, that their own nationalism can be generous and enhancing. Advocates of a pluralist England can’t organise the equivalent of the Scottish Constitutional Convention, which was able to draw on the Scottish church, the Scottish Trades Union Congress and Scottish political parties (except, notoriously, the SNP) with enjoyed an established and reassuring range. Scottish civil society already had representative voices that could call for devolution while displaying a capacious tolerance. No such institutional representation of English opinions exists in the majority country, able to establish its intrinsic pluralism, to lay aside fears of narrowness and demand an English assembly within a British framework.

In an apparently light-hearted but in fact careful and attractive passage in his call for the left to talk about England, Miliband presented himself as a typical Brit “who is also English” because of a mélange that “no spin doctor” would select for a politician, which therefore made him more like us: Jewish but not religious; a Londoner who grew up in Leeds; a graduate of Oxford and Harvard who fell in love with Justine, who is not Jewish and is from Nottingham; the son of a refugee Marxist who served in the Royal Navy; and, to top it all, someone “who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit”. By embracing all the stereotypes that might disqualify him in one magnificent sweep of contradictions, he turned them into an advantage – he is just as different and therefor as homely as you or me.

As I meditated on Ed’s self-presentation, I recalled a brilliant sequence in The Curse of the Were Rabbit in which Gromit, in his plasticine biplane, finally brings down Philip the bulldog. Of course! If Britain is represented by Wallace and his knitted pullover, Gromit is England: smart, practical, brave, shrewd, utterly loyal though often enraged by the stupidity of his master and . . . speechless. He literally has no mouth. Gromit sees it all and even reads the papers, but he is without a voice.

We the English are Gromit. He is our national symbol. (After this article went to press in the New Statesman an exhibition of 81 Gromit statues almost all identical except for their colouring was besieged by thousands of smiling families waiting for up to 8 hours, according to the BBC. When interviewed, they couldn’t explain why they loved him.)

Wallace and Gromit

Can we English please have our tongue and vocal cords? The political class will object in their familiar way. Why graft a mouth on to Gromit and ruin the special relationship with Wallace, when comic ineptitudes and the overcoming of adversity depend on the mutual relationship of a master and a loyal, loving dog who knows everything but cannot talk? Indeed, perhaps Gromit would vote to stay speechless. What is needed is not a policy that says England must have its own parliament, but a call to trust the English to decide for themselves.

When it comes to the matter of “us deciding for ourselves” anything about our future, all that is on offer is a cynical commitment to an in-out referendum on membership of the EU, designed to appease the Tory right and to attract Ukip supporters while manoeuvring Miliband into saying he is against democracy. A knight’s move is needed to escape from this trap, namely calling for a decision we can indeed take about how we wish to govern ourselves. Then, and only then, we can turn with self-confidence to what relationship is best with the EU.

This means having a long overdue written constitution with some basic laws. Provided, of course, that people agree (polling suggests that the overwhelming answer is “Yes, why not?”). The way to achieve this is with a convention that is larger than and separate from the Commons, that would be charged with considering the options to be put to a referendum.

Among the options should be whether the English should have a parliament within a federal Britain and how best to secure our traditions of liberty and democracy, whether within or without the EU.

This would not be a “revolution” of the kind that follows wars only. A multinational entity such as the United Kingdom that lacks a codified constitution cannot be anything other than threatened by membership of a much larger multinational and codified entity. Joining the European Union was in fact the revolution that upturned parliamentary sovereignty. Irreversibly so, not just because both the City and the UK’s foreign-owned manufacturing sector will never permit exclusion from Brussels, but also because if, in a Farage wet-dream, Britain voted to exit the EU, Scotland would certainly then split away to ensure itself did not.

There is no return to the historic system of a British parliament enjoying absolute sovereignty any more than one can resurrect the British Empire.

What is needed now, therefore, is to spell out what we want our democracy to be like in the light of this. For a great deal of restoration can be undertaken in the new circumstances, such as entrenching our liberties against an all-seeing surveillance state. “Oh, no, not that again, not constitutional reform,” I hear Labour professionals cry. “It’s a distraction from the real politics. There is no demand for it on the doorsteps.” Such heads are so deeply bowed examining said doorsteps that they don’t see the door itself that is opening before them. Instead, they are leaving it to Ukip, closely followed by a Tory party worked over by the strategist Lynton Crosby, to enter the electorate’s homes and to claim ownership of the present and near future.

This is a slightly longer version republished with thanks from the original article published in the New Statesman 

About the author

Anthony Barnett (@AnthonyBarnett) is the founder of openDemocracy