My grandmother used to say that bad things happen in threes, which at this point might be of some small comfort to Ed Miliband as Labour begins to emerge from a trio of autumnal crises to find themselves level in the polls with the Conservatives, for whom Miliband is playing the role of human shield against the onslaught of UKIP. On paper (which is a well-known sporting euphemism deployed at times when the bookies’ favourite is frittering away a title challenge) this should be a winter of discontent for David Cameron, not Ed Miliband.
Instead, the Prime Minister is free to argue loudly with his party over Britain’s membership of the European Union, where the Conservatives are locked in their own battle-for-the-soul, safe in the knowledge that the collapse of Scottish Labour, a ‘gunpowder plot’ and a millionaire Twitter-user are keeping journalists and commentators adequately engrossed across the country. True, the collapse of Scottish Labour did not happen the day after the independence referendum; it has been collapsing for the best part of a decade under the stewardship of Gordon Brown, the so-called ‘saviour of the Union’. Entering into a Faustian pact with the Tories to keep the UK together merely applied the pressure required to break the camel in two and divorce Labour from a traditional stronghold.
The ‘gunpowder plot’ to remove Ed Miliband as Labour leader, an episode credited to a group of the least revolutionary men and women on the planet, is such a laughable hyper-inflation of reality that Guy Fawkes would turn in each of his four graves. The only similarity between plot 2014 and plot 1605 is that both failed. The ‘plot’ against Miliband never ignited because nobody could think of anybody in the party who was more popular and less anodyne than him, save perhaps for Alan Johnson, who clearly enjoys providing company to misery rather too much to contemplate leading Labour to victory next May. If nothing else the event exposed the true extent to which the Parliamentary Labour Party is building an army of timid, beige, privately educated and privileged career daleks who are utterly bereft of inspiration.
That just leaves Emily Thornberry. The storm that her tweet created is still reverberating through Labour’s weekend like a bilious hangover, and it has shielded the Conservatives, yet again, from having to answer difficult questions about defections and lost by-elections. I am angry at Emily Thornberry, although unlike Ed Miliband, I am not ‘angrier than [I] have ever been’. I am angry because Emily Thornberry is an educated and considered woman (a barrister, no less). Her tweet lacked nuance and an attempt at some sort of social commentary was made but not executed.
I would have preferred if she had said ‘this picture captures the systemic search for identity among white British people who work in the labouring and construction industries which is the result of decad…’ too bad, Emily is out of characters. And that is the point: whatever she meant, it was too big for Twitter and 137 characters – whether she was passing judgment or providing political commentary is irrelevant. Her resignation from the Shadow Cabinet was inevitable because her boss’s response was to wax apoplectic in a series of hand-clasping interviews that her view, whatever it was, is not Labour’s view.
There is a simple reason behind the difference in fortunes experienced by the leaders of Britain’s two wheezing mass parties: David Cameron is in better control of his party and its message, even if only by a whisker. Ed Miliband is fighting for control of a party dominated by two factions moulded by the hands of its two previous leaders which now contains neither the charm of Blair nor the intelligence of Brown. If David Cameron can be pinpointed as the driving force behind the programme of modernisation within the Conservative movement that makes many of its followers so uncomfortable, Ed Miliband is a symptom, not the cause, of Labour’s increasing social and political irrelevance.
In political science there is a school of theory that examines the life cycles of political parties. The theorist, Mogens Pedersen, argued that parties are mortal organisations which are born, may or may not mature, and can decay and disappear. Pedersen’s research responded to the growing instability in party systems across Western Europe in the early 1980s as a result of new ‘challenger parties’. In 2014, the British party system has never looked so unstable, and whilst Labour may profit from the rise of UKIP at the Conservatives’ expense, the rise on the left of the SNP in Scotland and the Greens in England and Wales is as significant as the rise of UKIP on the right. Further to this, the disintegration in support for the Liberal Democrats is not translating en masse into votes for Labour.
I was listening to a recording of Alan Ginsberg’s ‘America’ last night, and it struck me that we could replace each iteration of ‘America’ with ‘Labour’ and have a pretty faithful lament to the current state of the party as seen by its base. Online forums such as Red Labour are channelling genuine socialist discussion, but any group within the party that speaks to its roots in an authentic way (none of this meaningless rhetoric about ‘hardworking families’) is dismissed as a fringe group of the slightly mad or the indefinitely silver-haired by the elite coterie of metropolitan careerists who now run the shop floor. There is a crisis at the heart of the Labour movement; the battle for its soul has been swept away by machines.
By Andy Irwin