It has been energising to see the Labour Party and Ed Miliband setting much of the agenda in politics over the last few months. It seems that the Leader of the Opposition's spells of passion and willingness to stand up for the majority against vested interests are becoming more protracted - an immense relief after the yawning gap of missed opportunities over the summer period. Perhaps it's because the weather has turned.
However, inevitably much of the media coverage has involved seeking to divide the party once again between Blairites and Brownites, Right and Left, unions and the party machine, and so on. Understandably, there is a fear on the Left that is as old as the party itself, that the higher echelons do not even slightly represent 'labour', or the gas meter-checking, low-paid public it's there to represent. The Labour MPs being talked up are bright - for example historian Tristram Hunt shadowing Education - but the ones with a chance of determining direction are hardly the sort of people who could get into a scrap in the pub on a Saturday night. But then perhaps that's the media's prejudice - after all, we're not all Eric Joyce. I may be low-paid, but I have about as much chance of getting in a scrap as Ed Miliband does of becoming a heavyweight champion. What the masses don't need is a Prescott-style bruiser, or even anyone particularly recognisably 'working class' - that's so twentieth century. What we just want is authenticity.
True, there are a few names rising up the PLP League who have some experience of real life - Gloria de Piero, for example (until the whole being seen by millions on TV every morning thing). But what is far more important than where these people came from is the perhaps not the unrelated matter of where their convictions, and hence policies, have come from. Yes, David Cameron failed to win an outright majority, but that was less to do with his or his colleagues' Etonian background - ordinary voters couldn't care less - it was more to do with his policies being seen as inauthentic. And he has proved the electorate right in spectacular style with the colossal U-turns on the NHS, hoodies and the 'greenest government ever'.
John Major has been in the news recently. It came as a shock to me, as someone who jumped for joy in my Power Ranger pyjamas when Tony Blair walked into Number 10 in 1997, but it was really refreshing to see him back. Not because he was sniping at Iain Duncan Smith or the PM; nor because he came from a 'down-to-earth' background similar to the majority of voters. It was refreshing because he believes what he says, and his policies are authentic and driven by conviction. Yes, he may have the luxury of being out of office, but the public respect him. Never mind that Ed Miliband had it pretty easy as the son of an intellectual heavyweight (one who loved Britain) and had hand-ups and connections, if he goes one step further and sells the fuel price freeze as something he believes in, rather than something that he pulled out of the bag 18 months from an election at party conference to corner the Tories, the public may actually pay attention to politicians and Labour again.
If anyone thinks that is an easy job, they can look at the findings of an Independent/ComRes poll the other day which found that eighty per cent of people agree with the fuel price freeze proposal, but only 41 per cent think it will be followed through by a Labour government. Some of these may just think that it won't be practical, but I believe the majority think it won't come to pass because they fear it is an inauthentic, cynical chess move that Osborne will struggle to play his way out of, to get into government. It'll be tough, but the public can be convinced that some politicians are still driven by ideas. It's Ed Miliband's duty to achieve this.
Normally I'm one of about three people alive in the UK who likes to defend Ed Balls against the media, however I worry that his 'no blank cheque' positioning on HS2 is cynical and calculated, waiting for a moment just short of the election where Labour can humiliate the Tories. These manoeuvres are about as subtle as a Miley Cyrus video, and are not lost on a sophisticated electorate who know they are being wooed. The public wants authenticity to shine through in a policy position, even if they disagree with it. The public-politician relationship is like when you're in a bar and someone is trying their damndest to impress you by telling you what they think you want to hear - it just puts the voters off. What voters and the disenfranchised want is a party which stands up for their interests because they sincerely agree with them. If you think HS2 is a waste of money, Ed, just say so. Don't wait until party conference season 2014 or April 2015 to come out about it - you'll just be patronising the electorate's intelligence, and angering northern Labour councillors and activists at the same - in the end annoying everyone.
Another aspect to the authenticity issue with Labour in Opposition is the old Left-Right perception, driven by a media stuck in a convenient but ultimately simplistic paradigm (to use Russell Brand's favourite word). Poll after poll suggests that the British voting public, rightly or wrongly, is harsh on welfare, not sold on Europe, and believes in the free market; but it also wants decent public services that are paid for by taxes, a strong NHS and Royal Mail that aren't being sold off to the lowest bidder, nationalised railways, and according to some polls, utilities. Since Blair took his acceptance of Thatcherism to the extreme, and risked appearing fake rather than principled, Labour has picked the first half of that list, but not the second half (it's realised some of the mistakes made on the NHS only when it's too late). Why? The swing voters and the old grassroots would be swinging to Labour in their droves if Ed Miliband just went one step further and said Labour believes in the second half of that list because it's right, regardless of where he came from and what the date of the election is. The first fixed-term Parliament is proving problematic for both Labour and Coalition strategy, but it could so easily be turned into an opportunity if ordinary, low or average-paid voters could see that the parties believe what they back.
Of course the backgrounds and experiences of Labour politicians will always matter to some extent, but only in so far as the party represents the views of working people, including trade unions, who are kinda the point of the Labour Party - the solution is not where politicians grew up or went to school, it's that they got their policies through some lived or witnessed experience, rather than with one eye on the media, one on the calendar, and one on think-tanks and focus groups (they say politics is showbiz for ugly people, but I've yet to see a party strategist with three eyes). They need to believe what they say, and some may think they can act, but you can always tell when an announcement is merely an irresistible calculation.
It all comes down to authenticity. If a party says it believes in something, and clearly does so with conviction and passion, then voters will re-engage with politics and finally have a choice once again. Never again will people like Russell Brand, who have the right ideas and concerns but dangerous solutions - people who I chat to almost every day who say they'd never vote again and have given up on Labour - have a licence to be apathetic and down on all politicians, and be able to say, 'they're all the same'. That would be to everyone's benefit, not just Labour's. Politicians themselves would automatically be seen less as droids off a production line spinning the same careful lines; there would be differentiation, regardless of what they look or talk like. However, although all politicians would benefit (apart from revolutionaries and extremists), I guarantee it would be Labour who wins elections, partly because young people would be voting again, but also because the British public would believe in the people’s party again.
Yes, more 'working class' MPs would be nice to see. But what would be ten times more exciting would be if the Labour top brass followed up brave policy positions like that on the energy companies with an authentic programme for change. I know they've got it in them.
By Luke Jones