Two Thunderbirds versus Colonel Blinky
The Labour leadership contest between Ed and David Miliband and Ed Balls is personality politics with no personality.
As we approach the 9 June deadline for nominations, the battle for the leadership of the UK Labour Party is getting about as exciting as a wrestling match in which combatants are only able to flex their facial muscles.
By that rationale, David Miliband, possessed of a face made of pure eggshell plasticine, is already winning the bout. The former foreign secretary now has the most nominations (57) and has claimed that he would use his own vote to aid a rival candidate if he or she couldn’t get on to the ballot slip without him. In the words of Diane Abbott, the Labour MP for Hackney who stands little chance of gaining the 33 supporters she needs to go forward, even with Dave’s sympathy vote: ‘I looked at the frontrunners, all male, all white, all former policy wonks, and it just seemed wrong.’ The Daily Telegraph’s political editor, Benedict Brogan, added that the gruesome foursome (two Milibands, Balls and a Burnham) are, in fact, so interchangeable that ‘Westminster is having fun with rumours that they once even shared a girlfriend’.
Despite these exciting rumours of woman-swapping, Burnham’s days as a contender look numbered, leaving us with a handy Venn diagram for those struggling to visualise the contest. After 13 years of New Labour, in which any hint of ideology was shunted in favour of the politics of personality and the cult of Blairism, the party now looks set to elect an individual (whether that individual happens to be named Ed or happens to be named Miliband) who has absolutely no personality whatsoever. In short, it’s going to be a contest between Two Thunderbirds and Commander Blinky, as the wooden Milibands make speeches with complex hand gestures that make them look as if their arms are attached to wires, and Ed Balls… well, can’t stop blinking.
As Baron Mandelson wrote in The Times recently, New Labour is entering a ‘new phase’. ‘It is about Labour not being a party of class or sectional interest, but about being a broad-based party of conscience and reform’, said Mandy. ‘An outlook that remains in tune with the priorities and ambitions of families across the country. Open, not tribal. Pluralist, not statist.’ Or as Blair once said: ‘Forward not back.’ Or as David Miliband has now added (summing up his launch speech on Twitter): ‘Labour must look outward and forward not inward and backward.’ Or as little Andy Burnham (a character so dynamic that I just had to pause typing, go cross-eyed and stare into the air before I could recall his name, along with the fact that he sometimes appears to be wearing mascara) would no doubt add, if anyone would listen to him, while holding hands in a ring with all his supporters, ‘You put your left leg in, left leg out, in out, in out, you shake it all about.’ In the Labour leadership, the political hokey cokey really is what it’s all about.
If I was a betting man (and being tight and female I am, of course, neither), I’d stake all my money on Ed Miliband. A controversial choice (or as controversial as you can get without plumping for the no-hoper John McDonnell) because his elder brother David is the more famous figure who has a greater number of supporters – but Ed strikes me as the only one of the contestants who might pull off photo opportunities with the sort of grinning confidence that Blair managed. You may not think this important – but believe me, under New Labour, it is vital. Alastair Campbell built the whole deal on little more than Tony, a sofa and a strategically handled mug. In 1995, Campbell and Peter Mandelson came to blows on the subject of whether Tony should or should not wear a tie to address young Labour activists. Gordon Brown’s striking inability to crack a grin in a normal, human fashion pretty much did him in. By the end he was gurning so much during his televised apology to Mrs Duffy that he looked like he’d done a fistful of pills and was suddenly hearing snatches of the beat.
Yes, the look of things is still vitally important to the pugnacious New Labour inner circle and its disciples. Only last weekend Campbell revealed his own particular appeal: ‘Somebody sent me a text about somebody else – they’re both well-known people. It said she was trying to put her finger on what she found so attractive about me. She said, “It’s the way he looks at you as if to say: I’d like to fuck you, but I just haven’t got the time.”’
Miliband the elder, of course, did himself in by being photographed brandishing a banana at the 2008 Labour Party conference. His complete disregard for the nuances of looking human before a camera has been a constant ever since. Along with his mangled prose, as seen in his articles that used to occasionally cause Westminster to choke on the old ‘Will He Won’t He Challenge Gordon?’ rigmarole, which always ended with the same answer: No, he won’t, and actually he’s expended a thousand words in the Guardian/The Times saying absolutely nothing. (An achievement, in one sense, but in others, downright scary. Multiple monkeys might after thousands of years be able to write the whole of Shakespeare, but could they churn out a manuscript that said diddly squat? Almost equally as tricky, in its own way.) Balls and Burnham, need I remind you, once frolicked on a swing. Balls, also, cannot skip. He spent 10 years slavishly following Gordon Brown and the last few weeks trying to deny this fact. And everybody hates him.
Yes, really, Ed Miliband is the only one amongst the Eds and Milibands who hasn’t, yet, been photographed looking like a complete plonker. It may be only a matter of time, but for that reason he has my vote. (Not literally, of course: were I really a part of the Labour grassroots I’m sure I’d feel honour-bound to pour paraffin and a match on my own ballot paper and stand well back.)
Emily Hill is a reporter on the Londoner’s Diary at the Evening Standard and is also spiked’s columnist on celebrity culture. Visit her personal website here.
Previously on spiked
Emily Hill said the level of political debate hit an all-time low with the deputy leadership contest, which at one point was reduced to a battle over handbags. Mick Hume said no crisis so bad it cannot be made worse by the self-serving intervention of a Brown or Miliband. Or read more at spiked issue British politics.
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