Eggs, Ed, and the Decline of the Political Party

By Oliver Ford

Ed Miliband’s rare entrance into the headlines last week may have been viewed as an achievement by the Labour leader (in what otherwise has seemed to have been a self-imposed media blackout over the summer) were it not for the fact that this feat was achieved as a result of being pelted with an egg by a disgruntled member of the public. The pictures of the incident, which inspired intermingling feelings of amusement, pity, and scorn, were only minutes after the event to be found on Twitter, posted and viewed by the politically detached and cynical British Generation Y. As well as providing amusement, however, Ed’s ‘egging’ also seems to be the perfect example of the huge and increasing divide between the major political parties and the public that has characterised British politics of the 21st century so far, a divide which threatens a terminal decline of the traditional party model in the UK.

On one level, the assault demonstrates the sheer contempt that much of the public now holds for the perceived ‘elitist’ and remote political class that dominates the leadership of both major political parties. This is particularly true of Ed Miliband, (being pelted whilst on a visit to a ‘typical’ London market, seemingly on a desperate mission to exhibit his affinity with the ‘average’ person) who, being born into an academic and political family, was sped through Oxbridge and into a job as a ‘researcher’ before rising to the top of the party that perversely claims to have the interests of the average working man at its heart. Of course, the same is also true of both David Cameron and Nick Clegg (as well as a multitude of other Cabinet members), both of whom have followed an unsurprisingly similar career path to that of Ed Miliband. This wholesale detachment of political parties and their leaders from the very public they claim to represent has resulted in a de-humanization of Britain’s political life – from Miliband’s elitist and careerist view, voters become ‘target demographics’ and people’s worries and fears become ‘issue trends’, Miliband himself never having experienced a life comparable to that of most of the electorate. This dehumanization then serves to alienate the political class more, with politicians retreating into their own worlds of spin doctors and polls – fuelling the public’s hostility to mainstream politics even further. The effects of this elitism and resultant disillusionment are easy to see, particularly with the electoral decline of the two major parties – the Labour and the Conservatives Party’s combined vote falling from 86% in 1945 to 65% in 2011. UKIP’s recent rise in this context can also be explained – with leader Nigel Farage’s personable and grounded persona, as well as more ordinary background (never having attended university) being a key factor in the party’s rise. The divide between an increasingly irate and detached public (demonstrated by Ed Miliband’s egging) and an increasingly isolated political class is therefore both a symptom and a cause of the decline of political parties in Britain; with the ‘distance’ between politicians and the public turning so many away from mainstream politics, a ‘distance’ which only increases as fewer and fewer ‘normal’ people have an input in the running of the major parties.

The perpetrator of the egging himself offers reasons for the decline of the political party. In stating that Labour ‘does nothing’ for the poor, Dean Porter is expressing an opinion that many in the country of different political views now hold – that the major parties have become too ideologically similar, and in many aspects are the same. In Dean Porter’s case, this probably means Miliband has not done enough reverse Labour’s right-ward lurch towards the political centre under Blair (Miliband’s early characterisation as a dangerous radical – ‘Red Ed’ – now seems cruelly ironic); similarly, the Conservative’s base of support has been left feeling alienated by many of Cameron’s liberal centrist policies such as the legalisation of gay marriage and maintenance of the international aid budget amidst widespread cuts. This convergence of policy and ideology at the centre of the political spectrum is a consequence of the elitism and detachment described before, with the secession of the country’s political leadership from the rest of society meaning that parties have drifted from their traditional bases of support, attempting to find a near mythical vote winning ‘centre ground’. This search for a neutral centre ground, seems, however to be self defeating, because in looking for this centre ground, parties become more and more alike, antagonising the public even more, losing votes, and so contributing to their own decline.

However, the merging of Britain’s political parties into an indistinguishable centrist mass (demonstrated well by Miliband’s directionless leadership of the Labour Party) is more than another symptom of elitism – it is in itself an example of and reason for the decline of the political party, for if the major parties are no longer to take clear and consistent positions on a range of economic and social issues, what is the point in them at all? The recent successes of groups that take a more definite position on the political spectrum display the dangers that major parties face in failing to define and clarify their ideological standpoints – with George Galloway’s left wing Respect Party winning the 2012 Bradford West by election and the decidedly right wing UKIP now regularly polling over 10%. In fighting over the same narrow stretch of centre ground, and in doing so acknowledging that winning elections is now more important that maintaining ideological integrity, the UK’s main political parties seem to be committing collective suicide.

Of course, the death knell of the traditional political party has not been sounded just yet – traditional ‘bread and butter’ economic issues that have arisen with the financial crisis and ensuing squeeze on living standards may yet invigorate Labour and the Conservatives. The party structure has also not yet fully been discredited; with parties such as UKIP thriving with burgeoning memberships, the current malaise may only be affecting the tired and lethargic Conservative and Labour parties. There will also be those who will rejoice at the decline of traditional parties, viewing them as cumbersome anachronisms unable to serve Britain’s fluid modern society. On many occasions, traditional party politics on both sides of the political spectrum have failed the country – one only need only look to the dysfunctional 1970s to see the dangers of dogmatic machine politics.

However, despite this, ever since the work of political philosopher Edmund Burke in the 18th century, it has been accepted that in order to hold the executive to account and form functional governments, well organised and disciplined political parties are required; if this need can be combined with a more open, receptive and flexible but simultaneously principled and meaningful party system, perhaps Ed Miliband and the rest won’t remain such inviting targets for egg throwers.

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Something old, new, borrowed and blue: Labour’s wedding punch-up

By John Newton

It has become de rigueur for political leaders to brook dissatisfaction and dissent from within their parties by describing their membership as being drawn from a ‘broad church’. However for Labour, ancient tensions and nascent feuds have meant that the party now more closely resembles the motley congregation at the tail-end of a bitter and boozy wedding reception.

Entrenched loyalties, noxious rivalries and ideological shifts mean that any honey-moon period Ed Miliband might have enjoyed will probably be cut short as spurned bridesmaids and thuggish uncles size each other up across an almost entirely vacant dance floor – wondering if their moment in the middle has come and gone.

In the long shadows of the darkest corner, we have something Old. The Old Labour faction – formerly known as Labour. They don’t understand why the DJ hasn’t got the Red Flag in his record bag, or why their leader makes jokes about being unjustifiably called ‘Red Ed’. The ticket that they first stood on has shifted beneath their very feet and the ‘true- Labour’ policies they espouse such as nationalisation of utilities, workers’ right as well as nuclear non-proliferation and solidarity with Palestine, are seen by the leadership as politically toxic.

Amongst this group are the family elders, warmly greeted by the leadership before being wheeled to the back of the hall in the hope they won’t cause a scene.  Their grumblings rarely change policy and are increasingly at odds with the leading lights, keen to retake the reins of power.  A good example of this was the recent rebellion over benefits sanctions in the Jobseekers Bill, which included long-standing Old Labour rebels such as Dennis Skinner and Jeremy Corbyn but also influential ministerial staff such as Ian Mearns who resigned as a PPS to Ivan Lewis in the wake of the rebellion. These are members from the bowels of the movement and they’re not short of guts when it comes to defying the whip.

However, these are not just Labour’s venerable patriarchs to be acknowledged but not adhered to like the tenets of some faded religion. Hanging around the exits menacingly are the stout, massed ranks of the unions – the ‘salt-of the-earth uncles’ and’ cousins-once-removed’ that the more aspirational leadership was reluctantly obliged to invite and continually agonise over the potential for a faux-pas that the presence of these poor relations could lead to.

They were right to worry, the head of the PCS union Mark Serwotka, has recently been hinting at calls for coordinated “generalised strike action” and this week Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey has warned Ed Miliband against being “seduced” by the upwardly mobile Blairite grouping.

This is something new. The New Labour group, which had held almost absolute autonomy over the Labour Party for the last 20 years, has been left feeling decidedly jilted after Ed Miliband beat new Labour protégé David to the Labour leadership. They, like the suave ex-boyfriend, are most likely to be holding court in exquisite dejection at the bar, disconsolately discounting the sub-par choices available on the frankly provincial wine list. These are politicians – it must be remembered – who knew Clinton, oversaw exponential growth and strode the world stage.

This grouping, while not completely in the political wilderness fervently believe that it is only through their brand of centre-ground aspirational politics that Labour could ever win a functional parliamentary majority.

The most notable dig at the current Leader’s new found happiness came from Tony Blair in the New Statesmen.

The message was clear, not only is the Leaderships current choice of political partner not right for him, they should have never have broken up in the first place, he said “In 2007/08 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was less than 1% of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997”.

He seems to imply the reason that Labour and the country fell so sharply out of love with the Blair model was all a misunderstanding  and that it would be a mistake for the Leader to go back to the safe old policies of mutualisation and regulation which would make the State bloated and dowdy. Don’t tie yourself down, don’t settle so easily. The Blair doctrine is fluid and pragmatic rather than ideological and doctrinal.

Miliband, it would appear, is right to be forewarned against such seductive invitations.

These are not just invocations from the desert, the Blairite reach extends well within the walls of Miliband’s administration. The past few weeks have seen a litany of old Blairite bridesmaids appearing in the media to proffer opinions and prognoses on all the Nation’s ills. Former ministerial chameleon John Reid’s vociferousness has been matched only by his ubiquity on news programmes in recent weeks as well as Peter Mandelson’s intervention sneering that Miliband “patently” does not have a robust platform to stand on for the next election.

Within Miliband’s Cabinet too, the surviving remnants of the old New Labour cling on. Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy and Work and Pensions Secretary Liam Byrne are notable examples. Just because they are on the altar it doesn’t mean they haven’t hidden the rings. While there has been no great sedition from within the Shadow Cabinet as yet, it presents an unspoken challenge to Miliband’s nascent policy realignment.

This new policy direction hinges on something borrowed. More specifically something borrowed from nineteenth century Tory politician Benjamin Disraeli – the concept of One Nationism. This it would seem has so far acted as a by-word for an all-encompassing and radical policy that has yet to happen. Wisely Miliband has allied himself to a conceptual attitude of inclusion rather than a concrete set of policies.

Broadly (as there is no other way to take it currently) Miliband’s formulation of the One Nation idea seems to rest most keenly on the idea of Mutualisation. After the centralisation of the Blair-years, things will now be devolved down to a more local level. It is difficult not to see this in context as being a minor shift left, although it should be noted that much of Miliband’s One Nation rhetoric is widely indistinguishable from Steve Hilton’s conception of Big Society.

Despite this the idea retains the potential to harken back to old old Labour, due to this mooted focus on the mutual. This would seem to be Miliband’s wedding gift from the right. It allows him to speak to Labour voters’ aspirations and concerns in terms that Conservatives would be loath to tarnish.

Its genus rests in something blue. Blue Labour, the notion proposed by Maurice (now Lord) Glasman,  that forms the policy machinations – such as they are- that function beneath the One Nation banner. Many of these have been assimilated with the continuing policy work undertaken by Jon Cruddas.

Miliband and Glasman, must be seen then as the couple taking an awkward turn around the darkened dance-floor. Despite all other old enmities and oblique barbs, all eyes rest on them. The Party that has become a reception expects them to produce results.

Surrounded by intervention, interference and sedition, they are the ones currently in the middle of this maelstrom. However, as Glasman is keen to stress being in the middle is not synonymous with being in the Centre. In the Guardian, he has called for leadership over consensus to form a “new political position”. This may be just as well, as the Labour Party seems to be suffering a pronounced dearth of consensus with the factions increasingly willing to engage each other on open ground.

They haven’t quite reached the car park yet, but the chin jutting, barracking and chest beating would seem to suggest that it can’t be long until a rambunctious uncle bundles a nefarious bridesmaid through the fire exit for a party political pasting.

Writing on the LabourList website state-side star transfer and new Labour campaign organiser Arnie Graf misquoted WB Yeats saying: “when the centre will not hold, things fall apart”. He may have unwittingly encapsulated the strife inherent in the scuffle between the most powerful factions to wrench the Labour Party, from its New Labour home on the centre-ground, left to the promised new One Nation pastures.