Ed Miliband, #OccupyLSX and the Political Mainstream

Dan Hind
7 November 2011

This article is part of a series on the #Occupy movements.

Ed Miliband yesterday posted an article in which he noticed the existence of the occupation of Saint Paul’s, and of ‘hundreds of similar demonstrations in cities across the world’. The piece is a masterclass in political positioning and it deserves a little close reading.

He claims that ‘some are swift to dismiss’ the occupiers ‘for putting forward what is a long list of diverse and often impractical proposals’. There’s no need for him to mention any of these proposals, of course, or to use reason to show that they are impractical. Doing so might force him into the realm of substantive debate, an area he cannot afford to enter. Remember, he is a serious politician.

Miliband goes on to put some distance between the occupiers and the focus of every politicians’ tender consideration, the ordinary, decent men and women of Great Britain:

Certainly, few people struggling to makes ends meet and worried about what the future holds for their children will have either the time or the inclination to camp outside a cathedral. And many people will not agree with the demands or like the methods of the protesters.

Some of the people outside Saint Paul’s are struggling to make ends meet and worry about their children’s future. But Miliband’s division of the world into hardworking home-dwellers and wacky campers can’t find a place for those people. Either you are at home reading Miliband’s wise words over breakfast, or you’re a outdoorsy eccentric without a care in the world.

As for Miliband’s ‘many people’ who don’t agree with the demands of the protesters, they are something of an invention. In a recent poll, 51% of people said that they agreed with the proposition that ‘the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people’.

Still, Miliband concedes that the occupiers ‘still present a challenge: to the church and to business – and also to politics’. Note that Miliband doesn’t think that the occupations are themselves political. Oh, no. The occupiers ‘reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run’. They reflect ‘a crisis of concern’, nothing political about that. It sounds like the sort of unfortunate episode a vicar might go through.

But this ‘crisis of concern’ isn’t the real challenge that the occupations present to conventional politicians like Miliband. They present a challenge because they are staging the debate that the ruling elite have studiously avoided since the financial system – and the governing economic consensus – began to collapse in 2007.

Miliband then pitches for the idea that we need to rein in ‘predatory capitalism’, by means that are left vague. He shows that he’s noticed that the energy market is a racket and that executive pay has run out of control. He also gives a nod to the magic percentages. But while ‘the role of politicians is not to protest, but to find answers’, he offers no hint as to what he proposes to do about the collapse of the country’s economic model.

He says that people are ‘wondering whether politics can make a difference’. Remember, what’s happening in the assemblies and the working groups, all that the effort of coordination and communication in hundreds of cities around the world, isn’t politics.

Politics is about promising to reduce tuition fees before slipping in something about ‘measured spending cuts’. Politics is about complaining that banks won’t lend to entrepreneurs. Politics is talking tough about making welfare reflect ‘the values of hard work, contribution and getting something out when you put something in’.

That’s what politics is. It isn’t open debate between equals about the fundamentals of social, economic and political organization. Everyone clear on that?

The last two paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

Business as usual is not an option. In every generation, there comes a moment when the existing way of doing things is challenged. It happened in 1945. It happened in 1979 and again in 1997. This is another of those moments because the deeper issues raised by the current crisis are too important to be left shivering on the steps of St Paul’s. We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate.

[1997? Really? 1997?]

But we can only win this debate with a movement which stretches beyond politics. That is why in the months and years ahead Labour is determined to construct and to lead a coalition which includes business and civil society to make the case for a responsible economy, fairer society and a more just world.

‘A movement that stretches beyond politics’ is what Miliband says when he means ‘a movement that I can co-opt and disappoint, like Obama did’.

We don’t need a movement that stretches beyond politics, we need a movement that stretches the boundaries of politics so that they include meaningful discussion of things that matter.

We all need to act to secure a public status as political beings.

‘We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate’ says Miliband. But we tried leaving economic and social management to fair-seeming professionals and it led us to the current crisis. Political operators have forfeited their right to pronounce on who and who isn’t going to lead the debate.

We must take a lead for ourselves, join an assembly, start one.

Miliband has said what he has said because the occupations are too big for him to ignore. There is no telling what he will say – and do – if we make them bigger.

More to the point, what will we decide to do, once we’ve had a chance to talk with one another?

Cross-posted from Dan Hind's blog, The Return of The Public.

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