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David vs Ed? It’s the end of politics as we knew it

Labour should be charged under the Trade Descriptions Act for describing this spat between flat-packed oligarchs as a ‘leadership contest’.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics UK

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If political parties could be done under the Trade Descriptions Act, Labour would surely be in trouble for describing its current internal squabbling as a ‘party leadership contest’.

Firstly, Labour is no longer a party in any meaningful sense of the word, but more a collection of cut-off cliques based around personalities rather than political outlooks. Secondly, the five individuals involved in this squabble have never demonstrated any authentic skills of leadership, having followed career patterns that emphatically insulated them from the real world. And thirdly – contest? That involves a clash of competing visions or at least of differing principles, and there’s precious little of that in this non-party no-leaders anti-contest wrangle for the top seat of ailing Labour.

One of the most alarming things about this ‘party leadership contest’ is that it is being treated as perfectly normal by political observers. It is being reported upon as if it were in the same mould as Labour’s leadership elections of the 1970s and 80s. In truth, this election has the peculiar, dialectical quality of being both the most boring political event in living memory and something very new, different, historically eye-opening. For it is a political contest taking place in a political vacuum, a search for a Labour Party leader at a time when the Labour Party has no clear social basis or political constitution.

The stand-off between the Miliband brothers (Ed and David), Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott – in which the winner will be announced on 25 September – reveals the extent to which Labour is no longer really a party. Some have tried desperately to project some of the party’s old politics and internal machinations on to the current contest. So Ed Miliband has been labelled a ‘baby Bennite’, after Tony Benn, the then leader of the Labour left who stood against Denis Healey in the deputy leadership contest of 1981 on a ticket of reviving Labour’s ‘socialist values’. Some even refer to him as ‘Red Ed’, whereas his brother David is ‘backed to the hilt by the New Labour establishment and rich businessmen’.

This is a transparently farcical attempt to inject some momentum into the spat between the Milibands (who are leading the field), when in truth there’s not a cigarette paper’s difference between their political outlooks. Both are green; kind of anti-war but pro-intervention; into ‘fair capitalism’; possessed of annoying, Blair-style speaking tics. The idea that one is Red and one is Blue is a see-through attempt to doll up a competition between two dynastic dullards as something meaningful. The extent to which the Labour clashes of the past have to be mined in order to find some language and ideas which might make the Miliband clash look exciting only shows how emptied of political substance is today’s Labour Party.

If they’re honest, the only real difference desperate Labour-supporting observers can find between David and Ed is in their attitudes to Blair and Brown. Were they followers of Blair (bad) or Brown (not so bad)? David is considered by some Labour supporters as suspect because he has refused openly to ‘ditch his Blairite passions’, while Ed is cheered for saying that ‘remaining in the New Labour comfort zone would consign us to opposition’.

Yet for all the attempts to present this as an ideological divide, it only shows how personality-based and even oligarchical the Labour non-party has become. This is not about which political direction they think Labour should be taken in (after all, the ideological differences between Blair and Brown were as slim as those between David and Ed), but is about which court they belonged to during the rule of New Labour from 1997 to 2010. Which king did these squabbling princes give their loyalty to: Tony of Islington or Gordon of Kirkcaldy? This has nothing in common with the sometimes substantial disagreements over direction that informed earlier Labour leadership contests, and is more reminiscent of the stand-off between the Guelphs and the Ghibellines – factions in medieval Italy that gave their loyalty to the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor respectively.

No amount of cutting-and-pasting from past leadership elections can disguise the fact that this one is about court-style sects rather than political camps. That is because Labour is no longer a party as we know it. As we have previously analysed on spiked, over a long period of historic decline, starting in the 1950s and reaching a head in the 1980s, Labour has increasingly separated from its traditional social basis, the working classes it was ostensibly set up to represent. Losing members and meaningful political affiliation, it has slowly but surely transformed from a rooted political party that expressed the outlook of a certain section of society into something more unwieldy, aloof, vacuous: a PR machine spinning from one media-driven initiative to another. The personality-based, media-appealing contest between two Milibands, a Balls, a Burnham and an Abbott reflects this historic demise of Labour as a party.

It is also disingenuous to use the word leadership to describe what these five people are fighting over. For, as a consequence of the end of party politics and the rise of the cult of personality and PR, today we have politicians who have no real experience of leadership. To a man, the main Labour leadership contenders entered politics, not by leading political campaigns or rubbing shoulders with the man in the street, but by learning the skills of communication and PR in utterly sealed-off environments. They are professional politicians, not political animals.

The four men in the contest typify today’s post-political trend for politicians developing their skills in institutions completely cocooned from the real world and its inhabitants. David Miliband worked in various quangos and think-tanks and then as a policy researcher in Downing Street from 1989 to the late 1990s. His brother Ed was a television journalist before being helicoptered in as a behind-the-scenes Labour researcher in 1993. Ed Balls was a leader writer at the Financial Times for four years before being handpicked by Gordon Brown in 1994 to be his economic adviser. Andy Burnham worked in a health confederation before being made a special adviser to Chris Smith, then New Labour secretary of state for culture, in 1998.

One striking thing that all four of these men have in common is that they were given influential positions in the New Labour machine before having been elected as MPs. They were promoted to influential positions on the strength of their think-tank work or journalistic skills, not on the basis of ever having engaged with a member of the public, addressed a rally, or demonstrated a capacity to enthuse other, normal human beings. All of them were then given super-safe Labour seats in order simply to increase their political clout within the New Labour machine and ensure their smooth elevation to Cabinet status. So David Miliband was sent to South Shields in 2001, after having worked in Downing Street for seven years; Ed Miliband was given Doncaster North in 2005, having worked as a Labour-linked researcher for 12 years; Balls was sent off to be elected in Morley and Outwood in 2005, having already spent 11 years as Brown’s right-hand man; Burnham was sent to Leigh in 2001.

This speaks volumes about the new breed of so-called political leader. Once, leaders might have worked amongst a people or a community for years and represented their interests in the centre of political life; today, handpicked future leaders are given safe seats in order to provide their already-granted internal clout with a lick of democratic gloss. It is the modern-day equivalent of being made a duke or a lord in order to get you into the court. The electorates in these safe seats are not really interacted with or taken seriously – they’re merely treated as a mound upon which a member of the oligarchy might build his political palace. Consequently, we’ll soon have a leader of Labour who has never knowingly felt the breath of an angry constituent or smelt the sweat of a disgruntled community, and who instead was constructed, Stepford-style, in perfumed, smokeless offices thousands of metaphorical miles from the madding crowds.

And then there is contest, possibly the most misleading word of all. A party contest involves substantial argument, attempts to sway opinion, to win party members and the public to your point of view. This so-called contest looks more like a vacuum-packed spat between politicians and their media mates, taking place on a rarefied plane that most of us have no access to. As the Milibands became the frontrunners, one newspaper said ‘the temperature is rising, uncomfortably high for the Milibands’ mother’. That just about sums it up: this debacle might be of consequence to Mummy Miliband, but the rest of us have correctly deduced that it has little, if anything, to do with us.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics UK

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