Miliband matters as much as Hague did

No one cares how Labour chooses its shadow cabinet. They've already chosen a man who will never be p

I snorted with affectionate derision at the sight of the old hippy: --Who does he think he's kidding? It'll take more than a hooded top to hide your lost youth, old man! Ha! Look at that stoma-- at which point I got close enough to realise that I'd been looking at my own reflection, as I approached a shop window from a literally and metaphorically obtuse angle. I hurried home, past Oxfam, minus a hooded top, with the immortal words of Jennifer Saunders ("a zeppelin in a condom!") ringing in my ears.

It's often remarked that we come closest to seeing ourselves as others see us, in those moments of unprepared shock. My loss was indeed Oxfam's gain. It sticks in my mind because the same day, to continue to strangle the metaphor, I found myself in the role of the obliquely-angled shop window, reflecting back at the - forgive me, there's no way of dressing this up - willful disinclination of the Labour Party to look itself squarely in the face and confront the mess that it's in.

I'd read a story about some change Ed Miliband wants to make in elections for the shadow cabinet, or rather I'd read excited twitterings from the Media Political Complex about how exciting, how radical this was, a sort of Clause IV "moment", or at least Clause IV nano-second; how it showed real, like, whatever, and I thought: poor Labour. I know how you feel.

Really, I do. I remember, some time before the end of the 20th Century, William Hague announcing changes in our party's constitution. For the first time ever we were to be allowed a vote in the election of the leader. There was tons of other stuff too, about the composition of various party boards (like, whatever), all breathlessly communicated to party members. I stuck a sort of pledge-card of the changes above the kettle in my kitchen in Harlow, imagining a sequence of excited dinner-party guests catching sight of it, and exclaiming: Goodness, how your party's changed! I must sign up for membership. And I'll certainly not be voting Labour again, what a terrible mistake that was!

Well, of course, none of that ever happened. I didn't own a table, for one thing, and I can't cook, for another, so there never were any dinner parties. And the guests who never came to them continued to vote Labour, well into the 21st Century.

Internal party changes may or may not be needed: but they are of almost no interest to normal voters. So I tweeted some comparison between Miliband and Hague, based on those youthful, hopeful memories that I'd once foolishly entertained. George Eaton, a writer at the New Statesman replied: "False comparison. Hague's only poll lead was during the fuel protests. Labour has led consistently under Miliband."

To the extent that George is typical of the Labour Party's thinking, this is bad news for Ed Miliband. Bad enough for Labour to imagine that tinkering with the party constitution is sufficient evidence of change with which to re-enamour the voters - since you can't actually do anything in opposition, you may as well faff around with internal party mechanisms. (Blue Labour will do nothing for Labour either; but that's another column). But to imagine that the current opinion poll lead is evidence that no more is required than to wait for the next election, when a grateful electorate will fling off the coalition and flock to Miliband, crying: Please, please allow us to vote for you again, we really want more Harman-style identity politics - well, that's as deluded as those middle-aged blokes you see, muttering to themselves in the High Street, wearing inappropriately-tight hooded tops, and not getting away with it. Not getting away with it at all.

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In defence of the metropolitan elite

Railing against low-paid academics will not solve Britain's inequality problem. 

It’s a measure of how topsy-turvy our political culture has become that Theresa May, a Conservative, Oxford-educated prime minister, can claim to be on the side of "ordinary working-class people" against a sneering "elite". But while Brexit has made this division central to our political culture, we’ve been heading in this direction for a while. 

Earlier this year, I was watching a heated exchange between centrist Labour MP Alan Johnson and Left Unity’s Simon Hardy on the Daily Politics show. At one point, Johnson bellowed across the table: "You’re a middle-class intellectual!" So this is now a stand-alone insult, I thought to myself, and took to Twitter to share my indignation. A friend immediately replied: "He means you." And she’s right. I am indeed a middle-class intellectual, a member of the metropolitan elite. Given the prevalence of post-Brexit elite-bashing, I’m loath to stick my head above the parapet. But as my liberal intellectual English lecturers used to say, these terms need unpacking. 

The right-wing anti-elitism that we are seeing all around us co-opts the left’s opposition to financial and corporate dominance and converts it into opposition to those who are educated. To listen to Tory speeches now it’s as if the top 1 per cent didn’t own half the world’s wealth, as if the sales of individual global corporations hadn’t overtaken many national economies, as if CEOs didn’t earn 300 times the salary of the average worker. No, it’s the liberal, metropolitan elite that’s the real menace – those mighty "experts" and "commentators". As Michael Gove, another Oxford-educated Tory, declared during the EU referendum: "People in this country have had enough of experts." 
Anti-elitism conflates political office and cultural and educational distinction on the one hand, with social privilege on the other. But there’s no intrinsic reason why there should be a homogenous "political class", or that those with expertise or artistic judgement should necessarily be rich. In 1979, 16 per cent of MPs had a background in manual work; in 2010 the proportion had dropped to 4 per cent. The history of the Worker’s Educational Association and the Open University reveals a lively tradition of working-class intellectualism. It’s true that, right now, political and cultural capital are appallingly centralised, and there is a revolving door between ministerial office and business. The range of people entering the arts and higher education has been narrowed by the removal of social security and block grants.

Today's anti-elitism, far from empowering the disenfranchised, covertly promotes neoliberal economics. High standards are equated with having the upper hand. Attacks on "cosmopolitan elites" - i.e. those who benefited from affordable education - entrench inequality, put the left on the back foot and protect the real elites – all this while producing a culture that’s bland, dumbed-down and apologetic.
This manoeuvre is everywhere. Brexit is a surreal pageant of inverted protest - May’s use of the royal prerogative supposedly represents the will of the people. The beneficiaries of the PM's grammar school "revolution", she claims, will be "the hidden disadvantaged children". Those who question the evidence base for this are simply metropolitan snobs. ‘This is post-referendum politics’, the BBC’s education editor reminded us tellingly on Today, ‘where the symbolic status of grammar schools as a chance to better yourself has trumped the expert consensus’.
The higher education bill currently going through Parliament brandishes the downtrodden student consumer as a stick with which to beat academics. According to the business-friendly University Alliance, academia’s reluctance to emphasise "employability" carries "more than a whiff of snobbery". Top-down curation is out; impact, feedback and engagement the new mantra. With their worth constantly weighed against the most pressing social priorities, cultural organisations no longer seem convinced by their own right to exist.
The "democratisation" of education, media and culture must be recognised for what it is -  a proxy for real democracy and any attempt to tackle social and economic inequality. Just as the redistributive work of politics is shunted onto embattled and underfunded sectors, the same anti-elitist pressure weakens politics itself. Democracy is thoroughly distorted by economic forces. But the solution is not, as right-wing populists do, to attack the system itself - it’s the only means we have of creating a fairer world. 
This anti-political sentiment is aimed disproportionately at the left, at do-gooding idealists and defenders of the "patronising" welfare state. Stricken with anxiety about being out of touch with its former heartlands, Labour is unable to strategise, put up a credible leader, or confidently articulate its principles. Unless it can tell a positive story about informed debate, political institutions and – yes – political authority, the left will remain vulnerable to whatever Ukip contorts into next.

It’s time to stand up proudly for good elitism – for professional judgement, cultural excellence and enlightenment values. Once, conservatives championed political authority and high art. But now that they’ve become scorched-earth modernisers, it’s time for progressives to carry the torch. Otherwise, disparities of wealth will become ever sharper, while the things that give our lives meaning dissolve into mediocrity.



Eliane Glaser is a senior lecturer at Bath Spa University and author of Get Real: How to See Through the Hype, Spin and Lies of Modern Life.