Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference last Friday in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Miliband needs to renew his commitment to "people power"

The Budget has revealed how vulnerable Labour is to the charge that it doesn't really trust voters to manage their affairs.

The most potent line in last week’s Budget turns out to have been George Osborne’s assertion that "people who have worked hard and saved hard all their lives, and done the right thing, should be trusted with their own finances."

This projection of pension reforms as an exercise in handing control back to individuals – "trusting the people" – made it impossible for Labour to reject them. Osborne invited Ed Miliband and Ed Balls to declare that pensioners and people approaching retirement ought to stick with the despised annuities market on the grounds, presumably, that dozy oldsters might otherwise blow their savings on sweets.

The leader of the opposition and the shadow chancellor know a deadly dividing line when they see one (not in vain did they study politics at the feet of Gordon Brown). They chose, after a couple of days’ deliberation, not to wind up on the wrong side this time.

There are plenty of reasons to be suspicious of the new pension proposals. Will Hutton’s column in yesterday’s Observer has a good précis of them. But those are mostly technical and theoretical arguments about distributional impact (rich people using their pensions as investment vehicles that entrench generational inequality) and the implicit bargain between state and citizen written into a tax-friendly pension regime (government acting on behalf of society as a whole has helped grow this pot of money and is thus entitled to some kind of opinion on what happens to it).

That all falls under Ronald Reagan’s old maxim "if you’re explaining, you’re losing." The much simpler and politically irresistible riposte goes "it’s my money, let me spend it."

It has been a disorienting few days for the opposition. MPs and shadow ministers have tried to work out whether they have suffered a minor embarrassment or a significant setback. A couple of opinion polls out yesterday appeared to confirm that the gap is narrowing. Of course, one day’s polls don’t prove anything but taken in concert with Miliband’s pedestrian response to the Budget in parliament, they seem to tell a story of lost opposition momentum.

Advertising their frustration, a group of prominent figures from the self-styled "Progressive Community" (otherwise known as the left) have today published a letter in the Guardian calling on Miliband to adopt a more radical programme. The principles they espouse are again pretty abstract. They call for institutions to be more "accountable to stakeholders" and for more "co-production of public services" through which it is to be hoped will flow greater "empowerment" of citizens.

This is hardly the language of the barricades but that is partly the point. The authors of the letter have calibrated their plea in terms that cannot easily be portrayed as aggressively disloyal to the current Labour  leadership. This isn’t an attack. It is –  believe it or not – better understood as an offer of support by people who think Miliband is capable of being quite a radical figure, and is most successful when he takes risks, but fear his ambitions are being undermined by unnecessary caution. It is an effort to strengthen the hand of the "good" Miliband who is bold and visionary over the "bad" Miliband who is hesitant and indecisive.

What is notable about this intervention is that it probes the same weakness in Labour’s position that was exposed by Osborne’s pension gambit. Each in different ways challenges the opposition to grasp that the best response to failed markets is not necessarily a return to central state power and Whitehall regulation. Whether the cause is the annuities rip-off, synchronized price gouging by the Big Six energy companies, eye-watering train fares or any other of the many services and utilities in Britain that feel, from a consumer’s point of view, like a vast scam - public anger is everywhere. Yet that doesn’t mean enraged citizens have renewed confidence in politicians to fix their problems. Miliband scored a palpable hit last autumn with his promise to cap energy bills but that doesn’t appear to have turned into a sustained eagerness for a Labour government. The Tories say their polling shows many people don’t think Miliband would succeed in getting prices down.

There is a conceptual weakness in Labour’s current pitch to serve as the champion of oppressed consumers, which is that the party doesn’t yet have a clear  explanation for how it intends to exert leverage over private sector companies, many of which operate in global markets. Wholesale nationalization doesn’t appear to be on the menu. Price controls, as threatened against the energy companies, are acknowledged to be only a temporary measure, in place while broader market reforms are enacted. And there is limited mileage in the cap as a tool of opposition. Labour has to be careful not to sounds as if it is running from sector to sector in a disorderly game of price rise whack-a-mole.

The traditional method by which the left has fought back when economic power has been unjustly wielded is to organise labour against unruly capital. That isn’t a template that is easily applied to workers and consumers who aren’t members of a trade union and whose beef is with service providers, not employers. Customers who are angry with their rail, energy or phone companies need something like the collective bargaining power of unions when their individual market choices are constrained or don’t appear to make any difference.

There is an interesting experiment in consumer collectivism under way in the The Big Deal  – an organization that invites people to pool their custom in the hope of extracting bargain rates from energy suppliers. The theory is that switching between providers has a pitiful impact on the companies at an individual level, but when enough potential customers are aggregated together they become unignorable. The Big Deal and the concept of quasi-unionized consumers are in their infancy but they suggest there is political potential in refashioning the left’s traditional techniques of collective action in the context of a 21st Century market economy. (And if the left doesn’t get into that space, there is potential there also for an enlightened, moderate conservatism that is sensitive to public frustration with unaccountable corporate power. It is worth noting that one of the Big Deal’s co-founders is Henry de Zoete, a former advisor to Michael Gove.)

As I’ve written before, Labour’s ambitions to get into the politics of consumer power are also limited by reluctance to engage for any sustained period of time with the idea that citizens are also consumers of government. Miliband appeared to address the deficiency earlier this year in his Hugo Young lecture when he pledged to tackle the failings of an "unresponsive state" through reforms that would generate new "people-powered public services." He hasn’t subsequently returned to the theme. This naturally arouses the suspicion that the Labour leader’s engagement with the idea of devolving power and tackling "vested interests" in the public realm as well as the private sector was cosmetic.

Shadow cabinet ministers and Labour MPs who were excited by the direction indicated by the Hugo Young lecture admitted at the time that Miliband would need constant encouragement for any reforming zeal to be maintained. That pressure is now focused on making sure the manifesto includes strong and irreversible commitments to an agenda of devolving power both from central to local government and from state agencies that provide services to citizens that use them.

This is more than an institutional tussle over the content of the party’s pre-election programme. Although the debate is mostly conducted in abstractions and played out in think tank seminars, it describes a fundamental political and ideological choice for the party. Can Labour embrace the idea of trusting the people – not just the rhetoric, but the underlying concept?

Given the gruesome fiscal outlook for the next parliament, Miliband cannot go into the next election promising to line voters’ pockets with cash. It will be hard enough credibly promising to invest in the kind of services voters expect a Labour government to cherish. Meanwhile, the Tories will cast the opposition as a gang of bossy bureaucrats, hell-bent on confiscating as much of your money as they can because, deep down, they think they have a better idea of how it should be spent than you do. That is a dangerous proposition, especially when combined with the relentless attack on Labour’s pre-2010 spending record that has already proved so effective. 

One way for Miliband to avoid that trap is to revive and develop his pledge to make Labour the party of radical devolution and revived local democracy. He needs to keep talking about People Power. Money may be tight, but control is one thing the opposition can promise to give away if it gets into government. It can hardly afford not to.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

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