Watching Ed Miliband, I had a strange new feeling: I think it's called "hope"

. . . and it only got better when I saw Grant Shapps, president of the unofficial second job society, squirming and whimpering on the Daily Politics.

George Monbiot recently suggested that journalists should be more accountable and declare interests. I will take this a step further and declare a lack of interest. It is a lack of interest in Ed Miliband and Labour, which has been steadily increasing over the last three years and recently has verged on catatonia. Imagine my surprise, then, at finding myself gripped by his speech today.

Not only did he suggest bold, decisive and positive solutions to the way in which the Labour party interacts with unions, appearing to be on the front foot finally on this issue, but he took the opportunity to make radical – if still rather general – proposals on MPs having second jobs and declared interests, and a cap on individual party donations. I experienced a very strange and unfamiliar feeling in the pit of my stomach. Initially I mistook it for indigestion, but it turned out to be hope for the future.

Over the last few days, as the debate meandered on about events in Falkirk, very little could be heard over the shrill, disingenuous crowing of Tory grandees and the distinctive heavy vehicle beeping of Labour backing up. There was much speculation about what the correct strategic manoeuvre might be; how the damage might be minimised for the party; whether this move or that move constituted a more elegant method of political suicide.

There was very little discussion about what was the right thing to do. There was very little analysis of whether there was something to UNITE’s stated aim of getting more working people into Parliament – however warped the method of achieving it became in Falkirk. In truth, the aim of getting a more diverse cross section of representation into the House of Commons is something we should all be demanding of the leaders of all political parties.

The 650 people who vote for legislation which impacts our lives should be a representative sample of the UK – not a representative sample of a W1 private members’ club. The fact that a union representing millions of workers would be reduced to Machiavellian politicking and backroom dodgy deals to achieve that should give us all pause for thought. As a symptom of the disease; not a proxy for it.

That we have a system in which Andrew Lansley – while Shadow Health Secretary – can accept a substantial private donation from the wife of the owner of one of the biggest private healthcare providers and make it a non-issue by simply declaring it, should be a cause for general concern. That Tim Yeo, a former Environment Minister, can earn more than twice his MP's salary from green energy firms, while chairing the Energy and Climate Change Parliamentary Committee, should be a source of general outrage.

My feeling of hope was confirmed by the spectacle of Grant Shapps, president of the unofficial second job society, squirming and whimpering on BBC2’s Daily Politics. He put me in mind of Bill Paxton’s character in Aliens, looking at his motion radar, whining “Eight metres. Seven metres. That’s inside this room. This can’t be happening, man. Game over, man. GAME OVER.” Questioned repeatedly about MPs having outside jobs (under any pseudonym cough-Michael-Green-cough) and about a cap on donations, all he could say was: “That’s not what this row was about; actually not the issue today at all; it’s about rigging elections; not donations.” Yet another politician apparently confusing what they were briefed on with what is important.

Of course, the devil is in the detail, many a slip ‘twixt cup and lip, don’t count your chickens before they hatch, actions speak louder than words; a multitude of bumper-sticker caveats apply. However, one must applaud the general thrust of what Ed Miliband had to say today. Whatever my opinion of him, whatever my feelings about the union movement, whatever I think of the Labour Party, whether I think this is the smart move politically or not, I feel I owe him a big fat “thank you” for putting these issues back on the agenda. Especially so, when he does it at considerable political and financial risk.

Ultimately, our survival as a civilised society will not be determined by the odd specific policy, or by poll ratings, or Wimbledon Championships. It will be determined by whether there are people at the top willing to contemplate the previously not-thought-of, say the previously unutterable, debate the taboo and consider changes in areas seen as sacrosanct. It is an attitude as vital in opposition as it is in government. And I believe politicians are either the sort that will stick their head above the parapet or won’t. I may vehemently disagree with Miliband on a multitude of issues, but at least I now know which of the two he is.

[Editor's Note: This piece was amended at 12.52pm on 10 July 2013. An incorrect reference to Tim Yeo earning money from the Renewable Energy Association was removed, as this position is unpaid.]

Grant Shapps: They're coming through the walls! Montage: Dan Murrell

Greek-born, Alex Andreou has a background in law and economics. He runs the Sturdy Beggars Theatre Company and blogs here You can find him on twitter @sturdyalex

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France is changing: an army stalks the streets and Boris Johnson wanders the Tuileries

Will Self on the militarisation of France, and Boris Johnson at the Foreign Office.

At the corner of the rue D’Hauteville and the rue de Paradis in the tenth arrondissement of Paris is a retro-video-games-themed bar, Le Fantôme, which is frequented by some not-so-jeunes gens – the kind of thirtysomethings nostalgic for an era when you had to go to an actual place if you wanted to enter virtual space. They sit placidly behind the plate-glass windows zapping Pac-Men and Space Invaders, while outside another – and rather more lethal – sort of phantom stalks the sunlit streets.

I often go to Paris for work, and so have been able to register the incremental militarisation of its streets since President Hollande first declared a state of emergency after last November’s terrorist attacks. In general the French seem more comfortable about this prêt-à-porter khaki than we’d probably be; the army-nation concept is, after all, encrypted deep in their collective psyche. The army was constituted as a revolutionary instrument. France was the first modern nation to introduce universal male conscription – and it continued in one form or another right up until the mid-1990s.

Even so, it was surprising to witness the sang-froid with which Parisians regarded the camouflaged phantoms wandering among them: a patrol numbering eight ­infantrymen and women moved up the roadway, scoping out doorways, nosing into passages – but when one peered into Le Fantôme, his assault rifle levelled, none of the boozing gamers paid the least attention. I witnessed this scene the Saturday after Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel ran amok on the Promenade des Anglais in Nice – it was a little preview of the new state of emergency.

On Monday 18 July the French premier, Manuel Valls, was booed at a memorial service for the victims of the Nice attacks – while Marine Le Pen has been making all the populist running, whipping up anxieties about the enemy within. For many French, the events of the past week – including the failed Turkish coup – are steps along the way limned by Michel Houellebecq in his bestselling novel Submission; a via dolorosa that ends with La Marianne wearing the hijab and France itself annexed by a new caliphate.

Into this febrile drama comes a new player: Boris Johnson, the British Foreign Secretary. What can we expect from this freshly minted statesman when it comes to our relations with our closest neighbour? There is no doubt that Johnson is a Francophile – I’ve run into him and his family at the Tuileries, and he made much of his own francophone status during the referendum campaign. In Paris last winter to launch the French edition of his Churchill biography, Johnson wowed a publication dinner by speaking French for the entire evening. He was sufficiently fluent to bumble, waffle and generally avoid saying anything serious at all.

Last Sunday I attended the Lambeth Country Show, an oxymoronic event for which the diverse inhabitants of my home borough gather in Brockwell Park, south London, for jerked and halal chicken, funfair rides, Quidditch-watching, and “country-style” activities, such as looking at farm animals and buying their products. Wandering among ancient Rastafarians with huge shocks of dreadlocks, British Muslims wearing immaculate white kurtas blazoned with “ASK ME ABOUT ISLAM” and crusty old Brixton punks, I found it quite impossible to rid my mind of the Nice carnage – or stop wondering how they would react if armed soldiers were patrolling, instead of tit-helmeted, emphatically unarmed police.

I stepped into the Royal Horticultural Society marquee, and there they were: the entire cast of our end-of-the-pier-show politics, in vegetable-sculpture form and arrayed for judging. There was Jeremy Corbyn (or “Cornbin”) made out of corncobs – and Boris Johnson in the form of a beetroot, being stabbed in the back by a beetroot Michael Gove. And over there was Johnson again, this time rendered in cabbage. The veggie politicians were the big draw, Brixtonians standing six-deep around them, iPhones aloft.

The animal (as opposed to the vegetable) Johnson has begun his diplomatic rounds this week, his first démarches as tasteless and anodyne as cucumber. No British abandonment of friends after Brexit . . . Coordinated response to terror threat . . . Call for Erdogan to be restrained in response to failed coup . . . Blah-blah, whiff-whaff-waffle . . . Even someone as gaffe-prone as he can manage these simple lines, but I very much doubt he will be able to produce rhetorical flourishes as powerful as his hero’s. In The Churchill Factor: How One Man Made History, Johnson writes of Winnie overcoming “his stammer and his depression and his ­appalling father to become the greatest living Englishman”. Well, I’ve no idea if Bojo suffers from depression now but he soon will if he cleaves to this role model. His Churchill-worship (like so many others’) hinges on his belief that, without Churchill as war leader, Britain would have been ground beneath the Nazi jackboot. It may well be that, with his contribution to the Brexit campaign, Johnson now feels he, too, has wrested our national destiny from the slavering jaws of contingency.

Of course the differences between the two politicians are far more significant: Johnson’s genius – such as it is – lies in his intuitive understanding that politics, in our intensely mediatised and entirely commoditised era, is best conceived of as a series of spectacles or stunts: nowadays you can fool most of the people, most of the time. This is not a view you can imagine associating with Churchill, who, when his Gallipoli stratagem went disastrously wrong, exiled himself, rifle in hand, to the trenches. No, the French people Johnson both resembles and has an affinity for are the ones caught up in the virtual reality of Le Fantôme – rather than those patrolling the real and increasingly mean streets without. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 21 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The English Revolt