Ed Miliband addresses the Labour Party conference. Photo: Getty
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Leader: No one is winning in the race to 2015

There was little sense of optimism among the Labour conference delegates in Manchester.

The Labour party conference in Manchester felt unusually flat. This could perhaps be put down to the trauma and the aftermath of the Scotland referendum – although the result was a comfortable win for the No campaign, it still exposed the profound divisions in Britain.

Almost 45 per cent of the Scots who voted wanted independence. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England and the general anti-politics mood are symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.

Ed Miliband understands this but the independence referendum was a reminder of the chasm that exists between the Labour Party and its former core vote. Over a third of those who support Scottish Labour voted Yes. A majority of the young, poor and unemployed voted for independence. Ominously for Labour, these groups viewed Mr Miliband as merely another representative of the discredited Westminster elite. Yet loathing of Westminster is not a phenomenon specific to Scotland. The disconnect between MPs and the electorate is evident in the collapse of turnout at general elections, the decline in membership of the main parties (but not the SNP or Ukip) and the fracturing of the two-party system.

As a result, there is unusual uncertainty surrounding the general election next year. Labour strategists say that they know what it feels like to be on course to lose an election – as in 2010 or in the 1980s. And, as in 1997, 2001 or 2005, they also know what it feels like to be certain of victory. The election in May 2015 falls somewhere in between.

It all amounts to a toxic combination that would unsettle most leaders. However, it is to Mr Miliband’s credit that he is less prone to short-termism than many, reflecting what he has called his “intellectual self-confidence”. His mission – his “ten-year plan” – is nothing less than to reshape Britain’s political economy. “The deck is stacked. The game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power,” he said on 23 September. Altering the economic rules, in his eyes, is the route to tempering the forces of nationalism, in England and Scotland alike, and quelling the anti-politics mood.

Commendable as the vision is, problems persist. Mr Miliband, the ultimate Westminster insider, struggles to gain a hearing in the country at large. There is, too, a question of voice and vocabulary. Can he speak to Britain as well as for it? No wonder that several of the most animated discussions at the Labour conference focused on the lack of working-class MPs. Some of the policy announcements at the conference do not sit easily with the ambition of the Miliband project. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said that Labour would not borrow to invest in 2015/2016, tying himself to the mast of George Osborne’s approach. He also apologised for Labour not imposing transitional controls on immigrants from eastern Europe in 2004 – ignoring that a comprehensive analysis last year found that immigrants from the European Economic Area since 2000 contributed 34 per cent more in taxes than they received from the state.

Mr Miliband’s speech was not nearly as well received as those he delivered in 2012 and 2013. In many ways, it was notable for what it did not say. The rhetorical slogan “One Nation” has been quietly dropped. Similarly, he neglected, or forgot, to mention the deficit, even if a section about it was included in the transcript of the speech.

With its banner slogan of “Together”, the Manchester speech represented the culmination of Mr Miliband’s four-year intellectual journey as leader. A clear thread links his much-mocked “predators and producers” speech in Liverpool in 2011 with his desire to recalibrate Britain’s political economy today. His ambition and his reforming instincts are unquestionable. He is a determined and ethical leader.

But he should beware: there was little sense of optimism among the delegates in Manchester. They like and admire their leader but are worried he is failing to connect with the wider electorate. They feel they are moving inexorably towards a hung parliament, with all the uncertainty that would bring. Labour does not yet feel like a party preparing for power. The one consolation is that Labour is united, unlike the Conservatives, who are divided and crisis-stricken – and who have, in the form of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, an enemy from within their own family intent on tearing them apart. 

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

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Erdogan’s purge was too big and too organised to be a mere reaction to the failed coup

There is a specific word for the melancholy of Istanbul. The city is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. 

Even at the worst of times Istanbul is a beautiful city, and the Bosphorus is a remarkable stretch of sea. Turks get very irritated if you call it a river. They are right. The Bosphorus has a life and energy that a river could never equal. Spend five minutes watching the Bosphorus and you can understand why Orhan Pamuk, Turkey’s Nobel laureate for literature, became fixated by it as he grew up, tracking the movements of the ocean-going vessels, the warships and the freighters as they steamed between Asia and Europe.

I went to an Ottoman palace on the Asian side of the Bosphorus, waiting to interview the former prime minister Ahmet Davu­toglu. He was pushed out of office two months ago by President Recep Tayyip Erdogan when he appeared to be too wedded to the clauses in the Turkish constitution which say that the prime minister is the head of government and the president is a ceremonial head of state. Erdogan was happy with that when he was prime minister. But now he’s president, he wants to change the constitution. If Erdogan can win the vote in parliament he will, in effect, be rubber-stamping the reality he has created since he became president. In the days since the attempted coup, no one has had any doubt about who is the power in the land.

 

City of melancholy

The view from the Ottoman palace was magnificent. Beneath a luscious, pine-shaded garden an oil tanker plied its way towards the Black Sea. Small ferries dodged across the sea lanes. It was not, I hasten to add, Davutoglu’s private residence. It had just been borrowed, for the backdrop. But it reminded a Turkish friend of something she had heard once from the AKP, Erdogan’s ruling party: that they would not rest until they were living in the apartments with balconies and gardens overlooking the Bosphorus that had always been the preserve of the secular elite they wanted to replace.

Pamuk also writes about hüzün, the melancholy that afflicts the citizens of Istanbul. It comes, he says, from the city’s history and its decline, the foghorns on the Bosphorus, from tumbledown walls that have been ruins since the fall of the Byzantine empire, unemployed men in tea houses, covered women waiting for buses that never come, pelting rain and dark evenings: the city’s whole fabric and all the lives within it. “My starting point,” Pamuk wrote, “was the emotion that a child might feel while looking through a steamy window.”

Istanbul is suffering a mighty bout of something like hüzün at the moment. In Pamuk’s work the citizens of Istanbul take a perverse pride in hüzün. No one in Istanbul, or elsewhere in Turkey, can draw comfort from what is happening now. Erdogan’s opponents wonder what kind of future they can have in his Turkey. I think I sensed it, too, in the triumphalist crowds of Erdogan supporters that have been gathering day after day since the coup was defeated.

 

Down with the generals

Erdogan’s opponents are not downcast because the coup failed; a big reason why it did was that it had no public support. Turks know way too much about the authoritarian ways of military rule to want it back. The melancholy is because Erdogan is using the coup to entrench himself even more deeply in power. The purge looks too far-reaching, too organised and too big to have been a quick reaction to the attempt on his power. Instead it seems to be a plan that was waiting to be used.

Turkey is a deeply unhappy country. It is hard to imagine now, but when the Arab uprisings happened in 2011 it seemed to be a model for the Middle East. It had elections and an economy that worked and grew. When I asked Davutoglu around that time whether there would be a new Ottoman sphere of influence for the 21st century, he smiled modestly, denied any such ambition and went on to explain that the 2011 uprisings were the true succession to the Ottoman empire. A century of European, and then American, domination was ending. It had been a false start in Middle Eastern history. Now it was back on track. The people of the region were deciding their futures, and perhaps Turkey would have a role, almost like a big brother.

Turkey’s position – straddling east and west, facing Europe and Asia – is the key to its history and its future. It could be, should be, a rock of stability in a desperately un­stable part of the world. But it isn’t, and that is a problem for all of us.

 

Contagion of war

The coup did not come out of a clear sky. Turkey was in deep crisis before the attempt was made. Part of the problem has come from Erdogan’s divisive policies. He has led the AKP to successive election victories since it first won in 2002. But the policies of his governments have not been inclusive. As long as his supporters are happy, the president seems unconcerned about the resentment and opposition he is generating on the other side of politics.

Perhaps that was inevitable. His mission, as a political Islamist, was to change the country, to end the power of secular elites, including the army, which had been dominant since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk created modern Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman empire. And there is also the influence of chaos and war in the Middle East. Turkey has borders with Iraq and Syria, and is deeply involved in their wars. The borders do not stop the contagion of violence. Hundreds of people have died in the past year in bomb attacks in Turkish cities, some carried out by the jihadists of so-called Islamic State, and some sent by Kurdish separatists working under the PKK.

It is a horrible mix. Erdogan might be able to deal with it better if he had used the attempted coup to try to unite Turkey. All the parliamentary parties condemned it. But instead, he has turned the power of the state against his opponents. More rough times lie ahead.

Jeremy Bowen is the BBC’s Middle East editor. He tweets @bowenbbc

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue