Ed Miliband is a John Doe-cialist: he doesn’t know who he is, but he’s sure he’s a left winger.
Naïvely Labourite in my more youthful youth, I confess I voted for him. I stand by that decision now, if I stand in support of any candidate who ran. Certainly I’m glad his older, Blairite brother didn’t snatch the title, who’d no doubt have spent the last three years defending New Labour to the death while politics moved on ahead of him. Nor do I rate the popular refrain his leadership’s been a humiliation – as Ian Dunt set out a year ago at politics.co.uk, he’s managed and positioned his party more skilfully than is acknowledged – but if and when he enters office, which seems to me likelier than not in eighteen months, my expectations are not high.
Colleagues on the left have been estranged by his complicity in ConDem Britain’s austerity scheme, refusing to fight cuts to services or welfare, to oppose the forced unpaid labour of the unemployed, to support direct action or keep his party bonded to trade unions. When Labourites aren’t standing up for labour rights, what are they for?
But these are only symptoms of his real weakness: being too timidly spineless to assert a clear political identity. Within ten minutes of his election, Miliband was thrashing panic-stricken around, attempting to throw off the Red Ed nickname newspapers had given him – a name which should have been a badge of pride, expressing as it did the social democratic platform on which he’d run and won, gaining the votes of union members, Blairism’s critics and disillusioned Liberal Democrats. He’s turned his back on this constituency since out of submission to the rightist media, pandering desperately for approval, and the irony is colossal. His leadership to date embodies politics-as-commerce, where marketable stances are assumed which research suggests will sell – forget about all quaint ideas of having principles, committing to them and making a case.
The result is that ideologically, Miliband is a non-entity, the same kind David Cameron was before making a market crisis one of public spending gave his real politics a chance to shine. Beyond media-friendly, lowest-common-denominator vaguenesses such as ‘One Nation’, the Labour leader offers voters no solid sense of who or what he is, afraid to advance a clear agenda – let alone one with a hue of straight-up, old fashioned socialism – and fight for it against his critics.
The reason Miliband speaks at any given opportunity about his father, and why opponents in the press and House of Commons have rehearsed ad nauseam the fiction he betrayed his brother David by not granting him the leadership by natural right, is that his family lends him elusive context. Ed Miliband means something as the prodigal son of Marxist academic Ralph or underdog to rival brother David – more than he means in terms of his own politics in practice. This is what makes the Daily Mail‘s recent shot at him via his father an own goal on two fronts.
If nothing else and for the avoidance of doubt, it wasn’t a good article, arguing first that Miliband senior’s ‘Marxist dream’ was spoonfed to his son, whose leadership intends to carry on his ‘evil legacy’ through capped energy prices, council powers to seize long-term unused land and independent regulation of press standards (Stalinism, no less), then that Ed is a tax-dodging millionaire in a North London townhouse whose ‘socialism’ is mere showboating. Both cannot be true. Either the Labour leader is a Soviet in sheep’s clothing, out to destroy the British way of life, or he’s a bourgeois hypocrite, the lesser son of greater sires. The latter line of critique needless to say is the more fertile, but seems to be peripheral here. The Mail must surely see the contradiction, but shows more interest, exactly like the man it hopes to vilify, in the marketably specious than the politically authentic.
Despite Winston Churchill’s fondly telling his wife in 1944, ‘I have had very nice talks with the old Bear. I like him the more I see him’, the comparison of Miliband with Stalin bears a strong ring of the former’s infamous Gestapo speech, which alleged Labour’s post-war welfare programme – National Health Service, social security etc. – would require a nazistic police state for its inception. Then Labour leader Clement Attlee had, like Ed, the least demagogic personality conceivable, making the accusation faintly funny. Tarring his father however, as his right-of-reply piece nicely demonstrated, only serves to lend him ammunition.
It’s childish, oversimplistic and dishonest, of course, to grant Stalin’s Russia a monopoly on Marx or communism. Ralph Miliband, despite the intimations of the Mail, launched a lifetime’s worth of salvos at the USSR; it conveniently neglects to mention the Hungarian forradalom‘s forces, who overthrew Soviet control for a short time and prefigured later uprisings, were themselves communists, demanding democratised elections and free media alongside fair pay for workers and academics and a living wage; in protest at its leadership’s support for Moscow, it was in support of them that the Communist Party of Great Britain’s biggest exodus of members took place.
In any case though, it should be clear from the title of Miliband the Younger’s rebuttal – ‘Why my father loved Britain‘ – that the hit piece only feeds his tendency to posture, hiding once more behind the family narrative, declining still to build a real platform. We’ve heard a hundred times how the Milibands’ parents fled the Nazis, availing themselves of Britain’s mythical hope and decency. It’s a lazy tactic, nothing but compelling anecdote (and less compelling the hundredth time round) in place of ideological substance. If the Mail cared about politics beyond partisanship, it could have laid this bareness bare. Instead, it offered him another thousand words to waste.