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.]