Scrolling through my Twitter feed seems to deliver no end of cringe-worthy photographs of Ed Miliband. I don’t necessarily think that being bad in front of a camera should be a comment on one’s ability as a leader, but one photo recently snapped of the Labour leader has caught my attention for more reasons than its comic value.
A tweet by Guido Fawkes showed Miliband giving money to a person sat on the floor in Manchester. The woman in the picture has been assumed homeless, but the truth is that we know very little of her or her situation at all. Nevertheless, Ed Miliband extends his arm with some cash to give to the lady, and in the process the internet gets another snapshot of Ed Miliband awkwardly doing something.
In all seriousness, there are a number of problems with what we are seeing here, and this article in The Huffington Post highlights some of the concerns towards the bottom of the page. In the first instance, the internet has been infatuated with trying to determine just how much change the Labour leader handed over. According to the Huffington Post article above, a Labour spokesman said that Miliband gave “a bunch of change,” with the Huffington Post adding that its value was reported at “around a pound or two.” Meanwhile, Guido Fawkes continued their analysis, adding to rumours that the amount could have been as little as two pence.
It is clear that a politician of such stature should be able to afford more than two pence, or even “a pound or two.” But despite my acknowledgement of it, I do so to highlight its triviality. Of all the things to be derived from this snapshot, this is the least important and most insulting. This photo shows a deep misunderstanding of the lives and needs of those most vulnerable in our society – so much so that even the leader of the party of social justice cannot appreciate it.
In his 2014 conference speech, we heard Ed Miliband mention a number of people. There was Josephine, who worked for a cleaning company for low wages and struggled to make ends meet. There was Xiomara who couldn’t afford college, despite her hard work in a kitchen; but she soon worked her way valiantly up the company to a better job. And who can forget Gareth, struggling to buy a home for his family despite working high up in a software company. Ed Miliband acknowledges the struggle of these people, as participants in waged labour. Their struggle must be recognised of course. Particularly because they are taking the medicine prescribed by their leaders; keep working.
But when politicians – even the Left-Wingers - are faced with someone for whom this prescribed medicine is failing, they feel they can do no more than fill the shoes of an employer, and pay her wage into a paper cup.
Don’t misunderstand my rhetoric here. Money is important. And with wage-labour being the only way to get it in an economy like ours (for most people anyway), it is logical to say that jobs are important too. The problem here is that for Miliband and for every other politician; jobs are what reify you. They are the marker that you are a person, and with that follows your right to speak, disagree and vote.
So Josephine, Xiomara, and Gareth will be recognised and represented by our politicians because of their compliance in the system. Their allegiance to employers has made their voices worth listening to, and a political football to be hurled between parties as they vow to become the party of ‘hardworking people.’ They represent thrift and determination, and so are entitled to be heard. Their wellbeing will be fought for with passion in the House of Commons, because of their work ethic in the face of adversity. They are human.
But the woman for whom both survival and political recognition are the most difficult things to achieve exists as merely a ghost in our socio-economic view of the world. As I mentioned earlier we know very little of this woman. Like Gareth and Xiomara, she will have a name. She will have aspirations and dreams. She will undoubtedly have opinions too. But unlike the three mentioned by Miliband in his speech, she has no definite employment and is relegated to the realm of sub-human. The views that she has on our world, our people and what she needs from those around her carry no volume. The harsh reality of her world is a different kind of hardship than faced by those mentioned above. It is unfathomable to most.
Here is what I wanted the picture to show. I wanted to see Miliband have a conversation with this woman. I want to see him sit at her side and ask what she wants from this country. What are her aspirations, how is her family coping? I want to hear her name mentioned at the next conference. Or even at the speech that he was making his way to deliver. I wanted him to acknowledge her existence.
However, in an attempt to rationalise this very alien situation in which he found himself, Miliband dabbled in the only system our economy knows: money. Because in his mind, and the minds of all those in Westminster, the only thing that this woman is in need of, is pecuniary reciprocity for her efforts on the street, rather than a human understanding of why she is there in the first place.
When passing a fellow human in need in the street, the most that most of us can do is give them money, food, water and conversation. The greatest help that we can be is to assume our role as a fellow human being, and treat that person as exactly that. People like this are not ‘beggars,’ ‘unemployed’ or ‘homeless.’ They are brothers, sisters and citizens. But politicians like Miliband find themselves in a position of power, whereby they can do more than we can. But this photograph – regardless of the amount of money given – shows Ed Miliband doing what most of us would do. He gave money in passing, as a sign of good will. He is acting exactly like one of us, in a rare situation that we need him to be better than us.
But if any politician wants to be a real man of the people, and lead the country’s working party, they must understand all people. More importantly – and with much greater difficulty in this economic consensus – they must understand the ones for whom work, simply does not provide salvation.
By Samuel Mercer