Miliband must name this new, insecure era

New analysis suggests British society is prepared for a substantial shift in political orientation.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has published a very interesting pamphlet ahead of Labour party conference on the changing face of the British electorate.

It is a detailed analysis of what the author, Graeme Cooke, calls the "new political sociology" (it's a think tank pamphlet, so allowed to wear -ologies and -isms with pride). The kernel of the argument is that New Labour achieved political success and dominated the national debate by owning the optimistic national mood of the late '90s and early '00s. Cooke calls it the "modernisation era" and excavates some of the sociological and demographic changes that lay behind it: increased participation in higher education; changes in family structures; accelerated permissiveness in personal morality etc. (There were lots more students and they took lots of drugs -- my shorthand, not Cooke's, and clearly there's a lot more to it than that.)

It is certainly true that in terms of the lexicon, this was a time when "modernisation" and "reform" became the default imperatives and highest moral accolades that could be stamped on any political project. (No wonder conservatism was in the wilderness.) Cooke's contention is that this era ended with the financial crisis and that the centre-left (i.e. Labour) has to grasp what the equivalent sociological and demographic forces are that will shape the new era -- and harness them for a political project.

A lot of this chimes with Ed Miliband's focus on the "quiet crisis" unfolding in British households squeezed and disoriented by stagnant incomes and inflation, leading to a steady decline in living standards. Cooke's analysis also fits fairly snugly with some of the arguments made by Stewart Wood, an important strategic thinker in Miliband's shadow cabinet, in a short essay for the latest edition of the magazine. Lord Wood argues that the financial crisis signals the obsolescence of the neoliberal economic model and that the government's difficulties in responding to the crisis reflect Tory and Lib Dem inability to conceive of an alternative way of structuring capitalism. Ed's plan is to define that new structure and sell it to the country. "Building an alternative to the neoliberal settlement should be the frame for the debate within our movement" is how Lord Wood puts it. "Ripping up the rule book" is Miliband's distilled version.

The IPPR analysis offers some grounds for thinking that British society is in some ways prepared for quite a substantial shift in political orientation -- since I'm in so deep with the think tank wonkishness I'll go all the way and call it a paradigmatic shift.

In my column this week, I talked about the way coalition, by solving the technical problem of a hung parliament, has obscured the underlying issue of hung politics. None of the main Westminster parties has yet found a compelling language for addressing people's concerns about the way society and the economy seem to be drifting into a long, scary crisis. The coalition's message of "painful but necessary" austerity will wear very thin as it becomes clear how unevenly and unfairly the pain has been allocated.

Miliband needs to give a name to this new, insecure era just as he put the notion of the "squeezed middle" into general use. Then he has to portray a happier destination for the country -- a route out of the crisis -- and convince people that he has the strength and imagination to lead the country there (while hoping they forget that his party was in government when we plunged headlong into the crisis in the first place). In case that isn't enough, Labour conference delegates and the media are kind of expecting him to do this all in one speech next week. No pressure then, Ed.

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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.