"New generation"? Miliband really meant it, says Mehdi Hasan

Umunna and Reeves are among the "newbies" joining Labour's new shadow cabinet.

At the start of his first conference speech as Labour leader, in September 2010, Ed Miliband proclaimed:

Conference, I stand here today ready to lead: a new generation now leading Labour.

He used the phrase 14 times in that single speech.

A year later, in the form of his first shadow cabinet reshuffle, Miliband has shown us how actions speak louder than words. The Labour leader appointed six new MPs to his shadow cabinet today: Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves, Michael Dugher, Stephen Twigg, Margaret Curren and Liz Kendall.

It is a bold (unprecedented?) move -- but one that I believe will pay dividends. Here's what I wrote in my NS column 12 months ago:

Where are the newbies? If Labour wants to construct an appealing shadow cabinet, rather than a cabinet of shadows, the party has to be bold and unorthodox; it has to promote new blood.

Members of the 2010 intake, such as Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Lisa Nandy -- all young, dynamic, articulate and intelligent -- have kept their heads down. A senior Labour MP says: "Stop mentioning Chuka's name . . . You're going to make him unpopular in the eyes of his peers and wreck his career."

Why? Because "experience", it seems, matters. Candidates are keen to stress their experience, ministerial or otherwise, in the various missives clogging up inboxes across the PLP. But experience is overrated. As Tony Blair proudly says at the outset of his memoir, A Journey, he arrived at No 10 on 1 May 1997 with no ministerial experience. The same is true of David Cameron -- elected to the Commons as an opposition MP in 2001 but Prime Minister by 2010. Barack Obama, meanwhile, spent just 26 months in the Senate before running for the most important job in world politics.

Nor does a lengthy CV automatically translate into good political judgement. As Ed Balls has argued, the "fortysomethings" in the cabinet who were attracted by the prospect of an "early" general election in the autumn of 2007, including himself, Ed Miliband and Douglas Alexander, were proved right in the end, compared to the "greybeards", such as Jack Straw and Geoff Hoon, who wrongly urged caution.

This isn't about ageism (Curren, after all, is 52), or turning a blind eye to the value of experience. It is about the political advantage to Miliband of having a fresh crop of Labour frontbenchers who are untainted by the Blair-Brown wars, don't have to blindly defend the last Labour government, are loyal, energised and enthusiastic, and, crucially, symbolise "change", "newness" and a break with the past. Opposition, remember, is a team activity; it isn't a solo sport.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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In defence of orientalism, the case against Twenty20, and why Ken should watch Son of Saul

My week, from Age Concern to anti-semitism.

Returning late from a party I never much wanted to go to, I leap up and down in the middle of the Harrow Road in the hope of flagging down a taxi, but the drivers don’t notice me. Either they’re haring down the fast lane or they’re too preoccupied cursing Uber to one another on their mobile phones. My father drove a black cab, so I have a deep loyalty to them. But there’s nothing like being left stranded in NW10 in the dead of night to make one reconsider one’s options. I just wish Uber wasn’t called Uber.

Just not cricket

Tired and irritable, I spend the next day watching sport on television – snooker, darts, cricket, anything I can find. But I won’t be following the Indian Premier League’s Twenty20 cricket again. It’s greedy, cynical, over-sponsored and naff. Whenever somebody hits a boundary, cheerleaders in cast-off gym kit previously worn by fourth-form Roedean girls wave tinsel mops.

Matches go to the final over where they’re decided in a thrashathon of sixes hit by mercenaries wielding bats as wide as shovels. Why, in that case, don’t both teams just play a final over each and dispense with the previous 19? I can’t wait for the elegant ennui of a five-day Test match.

Stop! Culture police!

I go to the Delacroix exhibition at the National Gallery to shake off the sensation of all-consuming kitsch. Immediately I realise I have always confused Delacroix with someone else but I can’t decide who. Maybe Jacques-Louis David. The show convincingly argues that Delacroix influenced every artist who came after him except Jeff Koons, who in that case must have been influenced by David. It’s turbulent, moody work, some of the best of it, again to my surprise, being religious painting with the religion taken out. Christ’s followers lamenting his death don’t appear to be expecting miracles. This is a man they loved, cruelly executed. The colours are the colours of insupportable grief.

I love the show but wish the curators hadn’t felt they must apologise for Delacroix finding the North Africans he painted “exotic”. Cultural studies jargon screams from the wall. You can hear the lecturer inveighing against the “appropriating colonial gaze” – John Berger and Edward Said taking all the fun out of marvelling at what’s foreign and desirable. I find myself wondering where they’d stand on the Roedean cheer-leaders of Mumbai.

Taking leave of the senses

My wife drags me to a play at Age Concern’s headquarters in Bloomsbury. When I see where she’s taking me I wonder if she plans to leave me there. The play is called Don’t Leave Me Now and is written by Brian Daniels. It is, to keep it simple, about the effects of dementia on the families and lovers of sufferers. I am not, in all honesty, expecting a good time. It is a reading only, the actors sitting in a long line like a board of examiners, and the audience hunched forward in the attitude of the professionally caring.  My wife is a therapist so this is her world.

Here, unlike in my study, an educated empathy prevails and no one is furious. I fear that art is going to get lost in good intention. But the play turns out to be subtly powerful, sympathetic and sharp, sad and funny; and hearing it read engages me as seeing it performed might not have done. Spared the spectacle of actors throwing their bodies around and singing about their dreams against a backdrop painted by a lesser, Les Mis version of Delacroix, you can concentrate on the words. And where dementia is the villain, words are priceless.

Mixing with the proles

In Bloomsbury again the next day for a bank holiday design and craft fair at Mary Ward House. I have a soft spot for craft fairs, having helped run a craft shop once, and I feel a kinship with the designers sitting bored behind their stalls, answering inane questions about kilns and receiving empty compliments. But it’s the venue that steals the show, a lovely Arts and Crafts house, founded in the 1890s by the novelist Mary Ward with the intention of enabling the wealthy and educated to live among the poor and introduce them to the consolations of beauty and knowledge. We’d call that patronising. We’re wrong. It’s a high ideal, to ease the burden of poverty and ignorance and, in Ward’s words, save us from “the darker, coarser temptations of our human road”.

An Oscar-winning argument for Zionism

Speaking of which, I am unable to empty my mind of Ken Livingstone and his apologists as I sit in the cinema and watch the just-released Academy Award-winning Son of Saul, a devastating film about one prisoner’s attempt to hold on to a vestige of humanity in a Nazi death camp. If you think you know of hell from Dante or Michelangelo, think again. The inferno bodied forth in Son of Saul is no theological apportioning of justice or deserts. It is the evisceration of meaning, the negation of every grand illusion about itself mankind has ever harboured. There has been a fashion, lately, to invoke Gaza as proof that the Holocaust is a lesson that Jews failed to learn – as though one cruelty drives out another, as though suffering is forfeit, and as though we, the observers, must choose between horrors.

I defy even Livingstone to watch this film, in which the Jews, once gassed, become “pieces” – Stücke – and not grasp the overwhelming case for a Jewish place of refuge. Zionism pre-dated the camps, and its fulfilment, if we can call it that, came too late for those millions reduced to the grey powder mountains the Sonderkommandos were tasked with sweeping away. It diminishes one’s sympathy for the Palestinian cause not a jot to recognise the arguments, in a world of dehumanising hate, for Zionism. Indeed, not to recognise those arguments is to embrace the moral insentience whose murderous consequence Son of Saul confronts with numbed horror. 

This article first appeared in the 05 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred