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Striking a chord: from Milibland to Johnson land

Jeremy Gilbert
18 August 2008

In the latest contribution to OurKingdom's Labour after Brown debate, Jeremy Gilbert argues for Labour without neoliberalism.

What was extraordinary about the commentary surrounding David Milliband’s short, bland Guardian piece a couple of weeks ago was how little was made of its sheer banality. Beyond vague evocations of the need for change, his prescriptions were so resolutely non-specific that they could have been interpreted as justifying any policy programme from the wholesale privatisation of the NHS to the nationalisation of all major financial institutions. But what was depressing was not the age-old sight of a young and ambitious politician generating generic rhetoric in an effort to play to all sides of an argument, but the sight of commentators as intelligent as Sunder Katwala completely failing to call his bluff on it.

However, the content of Milliband’s statement does tell us something about the wider political formation. The fact is that any politician in the ‘developed’ world must make a predictable set of noises today. Whatever part of the political spectrum they hail from, they must offer to do something about the combined sense of political disenfranchisement and economic insecurity which any national citizenry must feel in a globalised economy; they must address the sense of a ‘loss of community’ which is so profound and so widespread, and yet impossible to diagnose within the terms of liberal political discourse; they must indicate that they know that something really has to be done about the environment. This is why David Cameron in 2008 sounds so much like Tony Blair in 1997. If your political position obliges you to acknowledge the various things which most humans inevitably find discomfiting about living with neoliberal capitalism, but without ever acknowledging that it is neoliberal capitalism which produces their discomfort, then there is not much else you can say (unless you plan to start blaming immigrants, the ungodly, or non-nuclear families). It seems very unlikely that any contender for the Labour leadership - least of all David Milliband - is going to do any different.

But still: the issue has been raised, so let’s have a think about it. Would changing Labour’s leader make any difference to anything? Could any of the touted candidates help, in however small a way, to shift the terms a little bit, in such a direction as to contribute to some eventual bigger change in the political landscape? Certainly not at the level of explicit policy or strategy. None of them have ever shown anything like the capacity to offer a coherent analysis of the crisis of political democracy and the catastrophic social consequences of neoliberalism, never mind developing or endorsing a policy programme which responds to these endemic issues. John Cruddas stands out as an exception, and although his potential candidacy is only for the deputy leadership, the quality of his political commentary in recent years (e.g. Towards a Progressive Immigration Policy) should be enough to make us pause and reflect upon what the Cruddas-Johnson ‘dream ticket’ might actually produce if were to become a real possibility.

Quantum Politics

So the issue is Alan Johnson. But let’s be clear what this means. The issue is not Johnson the man, or Johnson the political theorist or even Johnson the minister. The issue is Johnson the potential Labour leader, and there is no point in denying that the first job of a political leader in Britain in 2008 is to connect with voters through the medium of television. A tiny proportion of the electorate is actually swayed in any way by the perceived televisual personality of a party leader, but all the evidence suggests that is precisely those voters - middle income, middle England - in marginal constituencies, who are the only voters who really matter in a UK general election, who are swayed by such issues. Let’s be clearer still. When I say ‘swayed’, I do not mean ‘duped’. Rather, I mean that such voters make up their minds on the basis of a complex set of factors which are not easily quantified or rationalised, and hence tend to be mistrusted by political scientists (or their students, as most political journalists have been at one time), dismissed as ‘amorphous’, ‘irrational’, ‘emotional’.

The language of liberal political theory is quite incapable of grasping the reality of the complex cultural and social resonances between different groups and individuals which produce political identifications and decisions in a context like postmodern Britain, and this is pretty much the only language which the Anglo-Saxon political classes - journalists andpoliticians alike - ever get taught (just go look at the curriculum for an Oxford PPE degree or a Kennedy School programme). Hence they are generally incapable of grasping the complexity of those cultural resonances which political showmen like Blair can understand intuitively and the occasional political genius - Thatcher, for example - can figure out for themselves. Hence their habitual resort to the most unimaginative technique for trying to map such currents of emotion and sensation: the focus group.

It is perhaps no accident that Thatcher was a chemist by training: the logics of molecular matter are closer to the real processes of aggregation, disaggregation, stabilisation and dissolution which give rise to political identifications than are the rational calculations of liberal mythology (this is one of the lasting insights of the great French radical, Félix Guattari).

Contemporary politics is a quantum phenomenon, but mainstream political thought is stuck with Newtonian preconceptions, falsely imagining its basic units to be self-contained little atoms which bounce around in a vacuum, or else members of clearly defined groups which act together all the time. If that analogy is too confusing, then try thinking of politics like music. Ordinary English already has a phrase to capture the reality which I am trying to pin down: a politician must ‘strike a chord’ with her constituency. This is different from saying that she must look exactly like them or persuade them to think exactly as she does. Rather, she must offer something which is in harmony with the aspirations and self-images and daily experiences of voters. Harmony is not unity, but a sympathetic, non-discordant vibration between two distinct but compatible wavelengths. The politician need not be an object of identification or adoration, but must indicate, somewhere in the distance, a point of potential convergence, some sense that she is going in a direction which will not create obstacles to the voters’ ability to travel in the direction that they want to go in. This is not necessarily - although it could be - the same thing as offering herself as a competent manager or an intellectual heavyweight. It must often involve the politician presenting themselves as someone who is not so unlike the voter as to be entirely alien, but they need not be identical, and sometimes their differences can be inspiring rather than frightening. Above all, it must involve the politician convincing the voter that their desires are either shared, or mutually compatible. This is what Brown has so signally failed to do, and what we must ask if Johnson could do.

Does this all sound far-fetched? Then reflect that not only was Thatcher a chemist: Tony Blair was an aspiring rock musician rather than a diligent scholar of political ‘science’ during his time at university, while John Major was the child of a music-hall artist and never went to university. They all understood something that the bright boys from the policy unit have never been able to get their heads around.

For while it all may seem very abstract, I think that this approach can help us to understand the strange parabola of the Brown premiership. Brown came into office with a cacophony of mixed signals, explicitly promising to continue and intensify the Blair project, while clearly implying that he had other intentions. He skilfully rode the long wave of anti-Blair feeling - which had never really died down once Blair had hitched his fortunes to Bush’s - and did much to encourage the general sense that he was a figure whose moral purpose would orient the country in a different direction to that in which had been driven by the exigencies of consumer capitalism. It is easy to forget now, but Brown was popular even with Southern English voters until his policy agenda crystallised to the point that it became apparent that it would, indeed, be ultra-Blairite. It may or may not be true that Brown’s heart is social democratic while his head his astutely pragmatic, but either way, this turn of events caused his public persona - previously always somewhat vague - to come into focus in a particular way, and it was a way that the public did not like. Either Brown was a coward - ultimately too scared of the CBI and Rupert Murdoch to follow through on his promise to change course and seek consent for such a change at the promised 2007 election - or he was a snake, having deliberately undermined Blair for years while actually having no alternative policy agenda at all.

Despite his lack of telegenic charm, despite even the growing nationalist fracture within the British political psyche identified by commentators such as Gerry Hassan and Steve Richards - Brown had the chance to tap into a generalised dissatisfaction with neoliberal outcomes and start to orient it in a more progressive direction. If ever there was a moment for a new Roosevelt, then this year - which finally saw some of the key elements of the post-New Deal financial regime come crashing to the ground - was it. But FDR knew that he had to mobilise the unions and the public against the speculators, and Brown showed nothing like the nerve for such a fight. He blew it, and now there is no reason for anyone to trust him again. It isn’t entirely surprising. Brown would have had to take an almost Churchillian heroic stand in order to persuade the public that his type of serious political intellectuality, a character trait which few of them share, was something which they could admire enough to harmonise with for the long-term: caution and transparent political calculation was never going to do it, and the result has been terminal for Brown and possibly for an entire generation of Labour politicians.

So if the question is, “Could Johnson - the direct opposite of Brown, admired for his telegenic personality rather than his politics or his intellect - be the figure to rescue Labour after all?” - then any answer has to take account of Brown’s initial popularity. Today, it is evident that Labour is doomed to electoral defeat under his leadership. But it is not the Prime Minister’s personality or appearance that is in itself so rebarbative as to be the cause of this.

Steve Richards regrets the way Kinnock, and now Brown, are hated. But Thatcher was hated far more, and just as personally. However, many who loathed Thatcher voted for her because they continued to see her as “necessary” in terms of the deeper music. At first, many, including those who are now intending to vote Tory, also saw Brown as orchestrating ‘necessary’ change. Today, no one thinks he is needed. An Alan Johnson leadership would have to get down to the necessary - and set out a new relationship between government, the public and the wider world - as well as finding a way to make it resonate with wider popular aspirations.

Johnson to the Rescue?

The historical precedents are not encouraging. It is only 30 years since the last time Labour was led by a right-wing Southern trade-unionist who had become leader while in government during a period of international economic crisis, and 18 of those subsequent years saw the Conservatives in power. It must be instructive, then, to reflect that the Callaghan government made the catastrophic historical mistake of capitulating to the demands of finance capital while alienating its core supporters, desperately trying to shore up a failed economic model (subsidising failing nationalised industries), while opening the door to a new one which could only benefit its enemies (with the first turns towards monetarism and fiscal austerity). If a Johnson leadership were to have any chance of succeeding, it would have to take a quite different approach, and risk the effort of finding new points of resonance between the desires of the 5 million lost Labour voters - including social-democratic Scots - and the swing-voters of the Southern suburbs.

This could happen: it is conceivable. Whatever his personal political convictions, Johnson has come up through the union ranks, and so is presumably less ideologically programmed than Milliband and the rest of his PPE/ Kennedy cohort to reproduce the assumptions of public choice theory (which, whatever the question or social problem under discussion, seem only to give the same answer: privatise something – unless, of course, it is a major financial institution we are permitted to feel sorry for).

Johnson’s estuary accent, easy manner and admirable dress sense could line up with his fascinating biography to produce the image of someone who is at the same time the embodiment of labour movement values and an icon of middle English aspiration. This might even open up the space for such a figure to say publicly what so many already know privately, even unconsciously: that the neoliberal project has gone as far as it can go while offering any benefit at all to consumers and citizens, that a new politics which harnesses the dynamic and democratic power of the collective (without nostalgia for the social democracy of the 1940s) must be found to tackle the challenges of the new century, that building such a new politics will demand direct confrontation between communities and state institutions on the one hand and corporations on the other.

That this all sounds so unlikely is indicative of just what a parlous state contemporary British politics is in. It is highly improbable that any of this will happen, or even that it really could without some much wider revival of coherent and explicit hostility to neoliberalism and the threat it poses to democracy and the ecosystem. But it is worth reflecting on the outside chance of such a scenario materialising, if only as an indicator of the kind of thing that democratic forces must try to imagine making possible in the years, and probably decades, to come.

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