Labour and Tories are both led by career politicians – but the label can hurt Ed more than Dave

Miliband is running out of time to inspire people with more than just a feeling that he has noticed how expensive life has become.

The differences between David Cameron and Ed Miliband are vast enough to obscure the one thing they have in common. They both went into politics because it seemed like a natural thing to do – a feature that also distinguishes them from most of the population.

Both men are products of rarefied social spheres that made a career in Westminster obvious and available. Cameron, Eton-educated and aristocratically connected, became a Conservative. Miliband’s upbringing at the top table of north London’s Marxist intelligentsia propelled him in the opposite direction. Talent explains their subsequent progress but neither man set off on a path marked by resistance.

For Labour, the comparison is abhorrent. Viewed from the left, there can be no moral equivalence between Cameron exercising the ruling prerogative of his class and Miliband answering the vocation of his secular creed. This righteous indignation has been amplified by Nelson Mandela’s death. For a Labour generation that grew up in the 1980s campaigning against apartheid, today’s veneration of the late ANC leader lends a retrospective moral victory to a decade of political defeat for the left. Margaret Thatcher won all the domestic battles but she was wrong about South Africa. While the Tories were making excuses for white supremacists, Miliband was meeting heroes of the Struggle at his parents’ dinner table.

Cameron was sensitive enough to this blot on the Conservative record to apologise for it in 2006, which confirms that the “modernising” instincts of his early years as leader were sounder than many in his party now suppose. Few voters choose a party for its historic stance on African liberation movements but Cameron understood that support for Mandela had entered British culture as a badge of transcendent values at a time when the Tories were disliked for understanding only material costs.

Now, in abandoning modernisation, he has chosen to concentrate on what seems like good short-term politics – winning the game at Westminster – at the expense of explaining how he thinks politics itself can be good.

That case badly needs making. This week MPs’ tributes to a man who embodied politics as self-sacrifice ran concurrent to a less edifying debate about their own status as salaried professionals. The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa) thinks an 11 per cent pay rise is in order. Plenty of backbenchers silently agree but their leaders cannot acquiesce at a time when politicians are reviled and everyone else on the public payroll has seen their wages cut or frozen. Cameron has a neat formula for making it clear that MPs are not immune to austerity – “the cost of politics should go down”.

No one wants to be governed by people who are only in it for the money but very few British politicians are. The greater problem is how many of them get into it without experience of doing anything else. In that respect, the differences between Cameron’s and Miliband’s backgrounds are smaller than the career politician label that unites them. Voters might be more receptive to the case for well-paid politics if they thought they were getting a more representative set of recruits for their money. Labour does better than the Tories or Lib Dems on that front but the advantage is slight. Conservatives suffer from their image as a club for the moneyed elite but Miliband’s party is judged to be exclusive in a different way – more a talking shop for do-gooders than a mass movement for working people. The polling agency Britain Thinks recently asked swing voters to imagine a “Mr Labour” figure at a party. They described a shy vegetarian, sorting through the CDs without choosing the music. “Mr Conservative” was brash and arrogant, in an expensive suit, drinking champagne.

Downing Street thinks Mr Conservative has the edge over Mr Labour in one vital aspect – people don’t elect a prime minister to be their friend. The Tories think voters can be swayed by the view that their hard-headed policies rescued the economy and that all gains would be squandered by their weak-willed opponents.

Miliband has scored points with his campaign on the cost of living, playing to Labour’s strength as the party that voters rate higher when asked who better “understands ordinary people”. He still faces doubt, including in his own party, that this empathy is the basis for credible government. The Labour leader’s inner circle has a clear sense of his “One Nation” project as a vision for weaving social justice into the fabric of economic policy. Most Labour MPs are much hazier about what it means in practice. One Milibandite frontbencher estimates that only 10 to 20 per cent of his parliamentary colleagues could easily articulate their leader’s philosophy.

That is a higher proportion than the number of Conservatives who could tell you what Cameron believes. The difference is that the Tory leader seems content to lack vision as long as people think he has a grip. He calculates that voters who despise all politicians will choose a party that shrinks government to fit meagre resources over one that has noble intentions and no way to pay for them.

The Labour leader’s friends say he aims to do much more than tinker at the margins of a dysfunctional economy. He wants to be a great moral reformer but he is running out of time to inspire people with more than just a feeling that he has noticed how expensive life has become.

In an election fought on making numbers add up, Mr Conservative has the advantage of looking like an accountant. Mr Labour’s big heart may not help him much more than his vintage “Free Nelson Mandela” T-shirt. Cameron is comfortable arguing that the cost of politics must come down. Miliband has the harder task of arguing that the value of politics needs to go up.

David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband stand together as Prince Charles, Prince of Wales launches a new youth campaign at Buckingham Palace on November 21, 2013. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 12 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Power Games

Getty
Show Hide image

What happens when a president refuses to step down?

An approaching constitutional crisis has triggered deep political unrest in the Congo.

Franck Diongo reached his party’s headquarters shortly after 10am and stepped out of a Range Rover. Staff and hangers-on rose from plastic chairs to greet the president of the Mouvement Lumumbiste Progressiste (MLP), named after the first elected leader of the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Diongo, a compact and powerfully built man, was so tightly wound that his teeth ground as he talked. When agitated, he slammed his palms on the table and his speech became shrill. “We live under a dictatorial regime, so it used the security forces to kill us with live rounds to prevent our demonstration,” he said.

The MLP is part of a coalition of opposition parties known as the Rassemblement. Its aim is to ensure that the Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, who has been president since 2001, leaves office on 19 December, at the end of his second and supposedly final term.

Yet the elections that were meant to take place late last month have not been organised. The government has blamed logistical and financial difficulties, but Kabila’s opponents claim that the president has hamstrung the electoral commission in the hope that he can use his extended mandate to change the rules. “Mr Kabila doesn’t want to quit power,” said Diongo, expressing a widespread belief here.

On 19 September, the Rassemblement planned a march in Kinshasa, the capital, to protest the failure to deliver elections and to remind the president that his departure from office was imminent. But the demonstration never took place. At sunrise, clashes broke out between police and protesters in opposition strongholds. The military was deployed. By the time peace was restored 36 hours later, dozens had died. Kabila’s interior minister, claiming that the government had faced down an insurrection, acknowledged the deaths of 32 people but said that they were killed by criminals during looting.

Subsequent inquiries by the United Nations and Human Rights Watch (HRW) told a different story. They recorded more fatalities – at least 53 and 56, respectively – and said that the state had been responsible for most of the deaths. They claimed that the Congolese authorities had obstructed the investigators, and the true number of casualties was likely higher. According to HRW, security forces had seized and removed bodies “in an apparent effort to hide the evidence”.

The UN found that the lethal response was directed from a “central command centre. . . jointly managed” by officials from the police, army, presidential bodyguard and intelligence agency that “authorised the use of force, including firearms”.

The reports validated claims made by the Rassemblement that it was soldiers who had set fire to several opposition parties’ headquarters on 20 September. Six men were killed when the compound of the UDPS party was attacked.

On 1 November, their funerals took place where they fell. White coffins, each draped in a UDPS flag, were shielded from the midday sun by a gazebo, while mourners found shade inside the charred building. Pierrot Tshibangu lost his younger sibling, Evariste, in the attack. “When we arrived, we found my brother’s body covered in stab marks and bullet wounds,” he recalled.

Once the government had suppressed the demonstration, the attorney general compiled a list of influential figures in the Rassemblement – including Diongo – and forbade them from leaving the capital. Kinshasa’s governor then outlawed all political protest.

It was easy to understand why Diongo felt embattled, even paranoid. Midway through our conversation, his staff apprehended a man loitering in the courtyard. Several minutes of mayhem ensued before he was restrained and confined under suspicion of spying for the government.

Kabila is seldom seen in public and almost never addresses the nation. His long-term intentions are unclear, but the president’s chief diplomatic adviser maintains that his boss has no designs on altering the constitution or securing a third term. He insists that Kabila will happily step down once the country is ready for the polls.

Most refuse to believe such assurances. On 18 October, Kabila’s ruling alliance struck a deal with a different, smaller opposition faction. It allows Kabila to stay in office until the next election, which has been postponed until April 2018. A rickety government of national unity is being put in place but discord is already rife.

Jean-Lucien Bussa of the CDER party helped to negotiate the deal and is now a front-runner for a ministerial portfolio. At a corner table in the national assembly’s restaurant, he told me that the Rassemblement was guilty of “a lack of realism”, and that its fears were misplaced because Kabila won’t be able to prolong his presidency any further.

“On 29 April 2018, the Congolese will go to the ballot box to vote for their next president,” he said. “There is no other alternative for democrats than to find a negotiated solution, and this accord has given us one.”

Diongo was scathing of the pact (he called it “a farce intended to deceive”) and he excommunicated its adherents from his faction. “They are Mr Kabila’s collaborators, who came to divide the opposition,” he told me. “What kind of oppositionist can give Mr Kabila the power to violate the constitution beyond 19 December?”

Diongo is convinced that the president has no intention of walking away from power in April 2018. “Kabila will never organise elections if he cannot change the constitution,” he warned.

Diongo’s anger peaked at the suggestion that it will be an uphill struggle to dislodge a head of state who has control of the security forces. “What you need to consider,” he said, “is that no army can defy a people determined to take control of their destiny . . . The Congolese people will have the last word!”

A recent poll suggested that the president would win less than 8 per cent of the vote if an election were held this year. One can only assume that Kabila is hoping that the population will have no say at all.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage