George Osborne, Ed Miliband and Tony Blair. Photo: Getty
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Leader: Labour needs to be more than just a repository for anger

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain.

In our centenary issue of 12 April 2013, Tony Blair challenged the Labour Party to be “the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger”. “In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion,” he wrote. “In the ­second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership.”

Mr Blair has become an embarrassment to Labour, not least because of his misadventure in Iraq and his less-than-distinguished activities in retirement. Yet his insight that Labour could not prevail if it appeared to be merely an instrument for expressing discontent with the Conservatives, rather than a means to a bold transformation of British society, was proved painfully correct on 7 May. And this much is true: since Harold Wilson resigned as prime minister in 1976, Labour has had seven leaders but only Mr Blair has proved ­capable of winning a general election.

In a passionate essay also published in this week’s issue, the actor and activist Michael Sheen echoes Mr Blair when he writes, “The question of whether Labour moves back towards the centre, doing more to seem business-friendly or breaking away from the unions, is totally secondary to the fundamental question: ‘What do you believe in?’” To which he adds a second question: “How do you turn that into policy that can make concrete change?”

Despite his heavy defeat, Ed Miliband did a good job of answering the first question. He was rightly offended by deepening inequality and, in an age of globalisation, by the widening gap between the very rich and the rest – the pressing issue of our time. Whichever politician emerges to lead Labour should not abandon the fundamental insight that deep inequality corrodes the soul of a nation.

Mr Miliband failed, however, to provide an answer to the second question posed by Mr Sheen. Under his leadership, Labour’s policy solutions were quotidian and incremental. Rather than setting the mood of modern Britain, Labour fell victim to it. For the left, in particular, this is an era of easy anger. Political action all too often begins and ends with shouting at a computer screen. That old phrase – “The right seeks converts, the left seeks heretics” – is truer than it has ever been. Mr Miliband attempted to channel people’s anger, even going so far as to persuade Russell Brand to endorse Labour. But the idealism of the young proved an inadequate weapon against the caution of the old. Labour led the Conservatives by 16 points among first-time voters but trailed by 24 among the over-65s, who also voted in far greater numbers.

Labour will not return to power if it seeks to win only the votes of those who are angry at the condition of modern Britain. It must also win the support of those who are doing well – and, indeed, the support of those who live so precariously that talk of change feels like a threat, rather than a blessing.

On all but the rarest of occasions, no single party can achieve all it wants. Even movements of the left and centre left require compromise, with one another as well as with the country at large. This can only be achieved through collective endeavour and complex trade-offs. Understanding the cause of left-wing anger – but being more than a mere repository for it – will be the biggest task of whoever emerges as Ed Miliband’s successor from a protracted leadership campaign.

This article first appeared in the 27 May 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Saying the Unsayable

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
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Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left