Where next for Ed? Mehdi Hasan on a fraternal dispute

The Labour leader ended a bad January on a high - and then brother David intervened.

Ed Miliband had a bad, bad January - but ended on a high. Having fallen behind in the polls, been attacked by his guru, got his message mixed up on cuts and gaffed on Twitter, the final few days of the month saw him help force RBS chief executive Stephen Hester turn down his million-pound bonus and put Cameron on the defensive, and then put in a strong performance against the Prime Minister in Tuesday's Commons debate on Europe ("Ed Miliband was very good," admitted the frequently-critical Simon Hoggart) and at PMQs, on the first day of February, on the subjects of bank bonuses and NHS reform .

Attacking the bankers - over excessive bonuses, lack of transparency, failure to lend and the rest - has proved to be a boon for Ed M. Recent polls show Labour has slashed the Tories' 5-point lead and I suspect we'll continue to see a mild uptick in the party's poll rating in the coming days and weeks. Why? Because, in the current climate, left-populism works. The public wants the political elites to take on the financial elites. It's not rocket science - and I'm not sure how many times some of us have to make this rather simple and obvious point to a cautious Labour leadership.

In October 2010, for example, after Ed M failed to make any public comment whatsoever on a 55 per cent jump in pay for FTSE 100 executives, I wrote:

So, Ed, where are you? Still running from the "Red" tag? Let's be clear. There is nothing "red" about objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries. In fact, the public would be on your side if you did - polls show voters support a high pay commission and higher taxes on bonuses and object to the growing gap between rich and poor in modern Britain.

Eighteen months later, Ed M is starting to reap the rewards of "objecting to reckless, irresponsible and unfair pay rises and telephone-number salaries". Here's political editor Joe Murphy in Monday's Evening Standard:

Ed Miliband has scored a big victory that will give his leadership a much-needed boost.

But Ed mustn't lose momentum on this issue - as he did on phone-hacking last summer, where he dropped the baton and allowed Cameron to kick the Murdoch/media reform issue into the long grass. The Labour leader has to own the issue of high pay - and keep banging on about it whenever he gets the chance. It isn't that hard, to be honest. For instance, why doesn't he come out loudly and publicly against the new bonus scheme being demanded by Network Rail chief executive Sir David Higgins, whose taxpayer-funded basic salary is already £560,000? Why doesn't he position himself at the head of a campaign to demand RBS refrains from paying out multi-million-pound, taxpayer-funded bonuses to members of its investment banking division, as is expected to happen in the not-too-distant future?

Then there's the issue of the cuts and Labour's various contortions on the subject. As a must-read, myth-busting Guardian leader points out today:

After just one year of full-blown austerity, marked by student occupations and rioting, it is sobering to be reminded that 94% of Mr Osborne's departmental spending cuts are still to come, along with another 88% of the planned reductions to benefits.

Ed M mustn't panic. The cuts have yet to fully kick in - let's see how popular (and/or effective) austerity measures are in 12 or 18 months time. Now is not the time for mixed-messaging on spending cuts, or cutting and running, otherwise Labour won't be able to reap the electoral rewards of having opposed them once the public turns - and it will turn, mark my words - against slash-and-burn, austerity-obsessed, 1930s-style economics. After all, as David Blanchflower notes in this week's magazine, the "Osborne collapse" has well and truly begun.

It is unfashionable, I know, but I've never bought into the nonsensical line from the right-wing press that Ed Miliband can't win, won't win, will never be prime minister, blah blah blah. It isn't just that, as Lord Ashcroft of all people has pointed out, he coud get "close to 40 per cent of the vote [in 2015] without needing to get out of bed". It's much more than that: Ed, at his best, brightest and boldest, understands the issues that matter to the great British public (see "squeezed middle", high pay, vested interests, etc) and, from time to time, displays excellent political judgement (phone hacking, the Hester bonus, shadow cabinet elections, etc). It's too soon to write him off. Meanwhile, the past few days have shown how unpredictable and capricious modern British politics can be: against the odds, Ed has recovered after his awful start to the year.

So, will big brother David's intervention in this week's New Statesman harm him? It wasn't, as some have claimed, an out-and-out attack on his younger brother. Nonetheless, the elder Miliband clearly isn't happy about the direction of the Ed-led Labour Party, isn't afraid to let people know that he isn't happy and surely must have known how a febrile, splits-obsessed media pack would respond to his detailed, if somewhat dry, critique of the views not so much of Ed himself but one of Ed's chief supporters, Roy Hattersley - and, that too, five months after the latter's original article on social democracy appeared in Political Quarterly. (On a side note, and to be fair, it is worth pointing out that David does volunteer four positive and named references to Ed in his NS piece.)

I'm never quite sure what David's game-plan is; what it is that he wants. The Times's Sam Coates had the best line on Twitter:

All DM's old tricks - setting up straw men (Hattersley) to knock down, loyal and disloyal simultaneously, over-complicated. Why do it?

Indeed. Whatever your view of David's intervention, the timing is bad for Ed, coming as it does after his strong performances at PMQs and in the Commons debate on Europe.

Perhaps Ed Miliband is just an unlucky leader. Not according to Steve Richards, in today's Independent. Steve makes a counter-intuitive but powerful argument in his column:

David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader.

Yet, according to Steve:

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

He rightly concludes:

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

(On a related note, my colleague Rafael Behr makes the opposite case to Steve in this week's New Statesman cover story, entitled "Lucky Dave".)

 

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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What’s it like to be a human rights activist in post-Pussy Riot Russia?

It is five years since the feminist punk collective crashed Moscow’s Cathedral in a performance that got some of them jailed.

On 21 February 2012, five brightly-dressed members of Russian feminist punk collective Pussy Riot took to the alter of Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour to protest links between the Russian Orthodox Church and its “chief saint” Russian President Vladimir Putin. “Virgin birth-giver of God, drive away Putin!” they shouted from beneath now-iconic balaclavas.

The “Punk Prayer” was both a political statement and a powerful feminist message. Six months later, a judge sentenced three of the girls to two years in prison (one was rapidly released) on a conspicuously apolitical conviction of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred”.

These past five years, Russia’s involvement in crises in Syria and Ukraine has cast a dark shadow over relations with an increasingly cleaved-off West. The year 2015 saw opposition politician Boris Nemtsov murdered some 500 metres from the Kremlin walls.

Domestically, society has constricted people challenging the political status quo. However, low-key initiatives retain traction.

“Artists are simply silent,” says Russian curator and gallerist Marat Guelman, who left for Montenegro in early 2015. “It is better not to say anything about politics, it is better to bypass these issues.”

This is a major difference from five years ago. “Despite persecution against Pussy Riot, people were not afraid to defend them,” he says. “It was a better time.”

There are three topics artists and curators now avoid, says artist and feminist activist Mikaela. One is “homosexuality . . . especially if it involves adolescents”, she says, citing a 2015 exhibit about LGBT teens called “Be Yourself”. Authorities closed it and interrogated the galley owner. “Then the war in Ukraine,” she says. “Russian Orthodoxy is the third topic you cannot tackle.”

Marianna Muravyeva, a law professor at Moscow’s Higher School of Economics, says that aside from the government completely discarding human rights rhetoric, the most significant legal change is the “gay propaganda” law and “legislation against those who insult the feelings of believers”.

The latter came into force in July 2013. Since then, the Orthodox Church has made deeper societal incursions. Muravyeva says that the secular nature of the Soviet Union led to residual feelings of guilt towards the Church – and now it uses that “capital”.

Mikaela observes a “cultural expansion”, citing a new TV channel, radio station and three new churches in her neighbourhood alone.

Orthodox activist attacks on exhibits have increased. In August 2015, they targeted an exhibit at one of Moscow’s most prominent art galleries. Its perpetrators were found guilty of “petty hooliganism” and handed a 1,000 rouble fine (£14 by today’s rates).

“Any word written in Old Slavonic lettering is spirituality,” says Guelman. “Any work of art by a modern artist . . . depravity, sin, the impact of the West.”

Similar groups are active across Russia, and galleries err on the side of caution. Perpetrators, while self-organised, believe their actions to be state-sanctioned, says Muravyeva. They are influenced by “the kinds of messages” conveyed by the government. 

Nowadays, self-organisation is integral to artistic expression. Mikaela witnessed educational institutions and foreign foundations telling artists “we are with you”, “we know you are smart” but they cannot host political works for fear of closure. Not knowing where the “invisible line” lies foments uncertainty. “It’s self-censorship,” she says.

Dissident artist Petr Pavlensky, notorious for nailing his scrotum to the Red Square in late 2013 (“Fixation”) and setting fire to the doors of the FSB in 2015, advocates personal agency.

“Fixation” was about a sense of helplessness in Russia that must be overcome; he tried to convey the amount of power the castrated have. “Pavlensky says, ‘Look, I have even less than you’,” says Guelman. The artist and his partner Oksana Shalygina are now in France intending to seek asylum after sexual assault accusations.

Some rise to the opportunity, such as Daria Serenko. She rides the Moscow Metro carrying political posters as part of Tikhy Piket or “Silent Protest”. Her 12 February sign depicted a girl with her head in her arms inundated by the comments received if a women alleges rape (“she was probably drunk”, “what was she wearing?”).

However, as a lone individual in a public space, she experienced hostility. “Men, as always, laughed,” she posted on Facebook afterwards. Earlier this month an anonymous group pasted painted plants accompanied by anti-domestic violence messages around Omsk, southwestern Siberia.

Their appearance corresponded with Putin signing legislation on 7 February decriminalising domestic abuse that causes “minor harm”. While it doesn’t specifically mention women, Muravyeva says that the message “women can manage on their own” is a “disaster”.

On 27 January, after Russia’s parliament passed the final draft, pro-Kremlin tabloid Life released a video (“He Beats You Because He Loves You”) showing how to inflict pain without leaving a mark.

Heightened social awareness is aided by online networks. Since “Punk Prayer”, the proportion of people using the internet in Russia has exploded. In 2011, it was 33 per cent, while in 2016 it was 73 per cent, according annual Freedom House reports. Authorities have concurrently exerted stronger controls over it, eg. targeting individual social media users through broadly-worded laws against “extremism”.

Last July, the hashtag #ЯНеБоюсьСказать (“#IamNotAfraidtoSay”) went viral. Women documented experiences of sexual violence. Russian organisation Сёстры (“Sisters”), which helps survivors receive psychological support, receives “250-350” crisis calls annually.

“Over the past year, the number of applications increased,” because of the hashtag, it says. New media platforms Meduza and Wonderzine also emerged as more “socially aware” outlets. Previously “all we had was LiveJournal communities,” Mikaela says.

Bottom-up challenges are partially due to a generational shift. “Nobody bothered before,” says Muravyeva. “Those children who were born after ‘95 . . . they were already born in a very free society – they don’t know what it is to be afraid, they don’t know what it is to be self-censoring, what it is to be really scared of the state.”

Aliide Naylor is a British journalist and former Arts and Ideas Editor of The Moscow Times.

> Now read Anoosh Chakelian’s interview with Nadya Tolokonnikova of Pussy Riot