Ed Miliband and the Political Mainstream

Ed Miliband has just posted an article in which he notices the existence of the occupation of Saint Paul’s, and of ‘hundreds of similar demonstrations in cities across the world’. The piece is a masterclass in political positioning and it deserves a little close reading.

He claims that ‘some are swift to dismiss’ the occupiers ‘for putting forward what is a long list of diverse and often impractical proposals’. There’s no need for him to mention any of these proposals, of course, or to use reason to show that they are impractical. Doing so might force him into the realm of substantive debate, an area he cannot afford to enter. Remember, he is a serious politician.

Miliband goes on to put some distance between the occupiers and the focus of every politicians’ tender consideration, the ordinary, decent men and women of Great Britain:

Certainly, few people struggling to makes ends meet and worried about what the future holds for their children will have either the time or the inclination to camp outside a cathedral. And many people will not agree with the demands or like the methods of the protesters.

Some of the people outside Saint Paul’s are struggling to make ends meet and worry about their children’s future. But Miliband’s division of the world into hardworking home-dwellers and wacky campers can’t find a place for those people. Either you are at home reading Miliband’s wise words over breakfast, or you’re a outdoorsy eccentric without a care in the world.

As for Miliband’s ‘many people’ who don’t agree with the demands of the protesters, they are something of an invention. In a recent poll, 51% of people said that they agreed with the proposition that ‘the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people’.

Still, Miliband concedes that the occupiers ‘still present a challenge: to the church and to business – and also to politics’. Note that Miliband doesn’t think that the occupations are themselves political. Oh, no. The occupiers ‘reflect a crisis of concern for millions of people about the biggest issue of our time: the gap between their values and the way our country is run’. They reflect ‘a crisis of concern’, nothing political about that. It sounds like the sort of unfortunate episode a vicar might go through.

But this ‘crisis of concern’ isn’t the real challenge that the occupations present to conventional politicians like Miliband. They present a challenge because they are staging the debate that the ruling elite have studiously avoided since the financial system – and the governing economic consensus – began to collapse in 2007.

Miliband then pitches for the idea that we need to rein in ‘predatory capitalism’, by means that are left vague. He shows that he’s noticed that the energy market is a racket and that executive pay has run out of control. He also gives a nod to the magic percentages. But while ‘the role of politicians is not to protest, but to find answers’, he offers no hint as to what he proposes to do about the collapse of the country’s economic model.

He says that people are ‘wondering whether politics can make a difference’. Remember, what’s happening in the assemblies and the working groups, all that the effort of coordination and communication in hundreds of cities around the world, isn’t politics.

Politics is about promising to reduce tuition fees before slipping in something about ‘measured spending cuts’. Politics is about complaining that banks won’t lend to entrepreneurs. Politics is talking tough about making welfare reflect ‘the values of hard work, contribution and getting something out when you put something in’.

That’s what politics is. It isn’t open debate between equals about the fundamentals of social, economic and political organization. Everyone clear on that?

The last two paragraphs are worth quoting in full:

Business as usual is not an option. In every generation, there comes a moment when the existing way of doing things is challenged. It happened in 1945. It happened in 1979 and again in 1997. This is another of those moments because the deeper issues raised by the current crisis are too important to be left shivering on the steps of St Paul’s. We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate.

[1997? Really? 1997?]

But we can only win this debate with a movement which stretches beyond politics. That is why in the months and years ahead Labour is determined to construct and to lead a coalition which includes business and civil society to make the case for a responsible economy, fairer society and a more just world.

‘A movement that stretches beyond politics’ is what Miliband says when he means ‘a movement that I can co-opt and disappoint, like Obama did’.

We don’t need a movement that stretches beyond politics, we need a movement that stretches the boundaries of politics so that they include meaningful discussion of things that matter.

We all need to act to secure a public status as political beings.

‘We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate’ says Miliband. But we tried leaving economic and social management to fair-seeming professionals and it led us to the current crisis. Political operators have forfeited their right to pronounce on who and who isn’t going to lead the debate.

We must take a lead for ourselves, join an assembly, start one.

Miliband has said what he has said because the occupations are too big for him to ignore. There is no telling what he will say – and do – if we make them bigger.

More to the point, what will we decide to do, once we’ve had a chance to talk with one another?

26 thoughts on “Ed Miliband and the Political Mainstream”

  1. Will have to read this tomorrow to respond to this properly and in full but a few brief points as I see it:
    51% of people said that they agreed with the proposition that ‘the protesters are right to want to call time on a system that puts profit before people’
    Suggests that 49% either don’t know or disagree – I would say this is a sizeable number (even though it’s not a majority)

    And it isn’t just about principles it’s the methods – I’m sorry but everyone does have the right to protest march but writing solidarity/unity etc etc on the ground in chalk every day for it to be cleaned up by public servants (the people there supposed to be representing) doesn’t exactly seem sensible to me (I’m going on what I’m seeing at occupy brisol here – I don’t claim to know if this is a general thing or not – but it’s the impression that me and my friends here get)

    people are ‘wondering whether politics can make a difference

    I read a very interesting article today (will try and find it tomorrow) about the Icelandic response to their debt crisis – which came a long way before the main debt crisis began – there politcians defended Iceland against extensive budget cuts, redrafted the constitution and are currently getting a panel of ordinary people nominated by the citizens of Iceland to draft new clauses to the constitution to make it fairer still. I think this shows politicians CAN make a difference of they go about it in the right way.

    ‘some are swift to dismiss’ the occupiers ‘for putting forward what is a long list of diverse and often impractical proposals’.
    When it first came out I read the occupy constitution (admittedly I haven’t seen it since so if this has changed I apologise) in it they said there was no need for cuts – I think whats happened to Greece & Italy is enough reason to show that is impractical. Perhaps tomorrow I’ll go through the rest of the list. But I’ll also point out it takes anything from 5-10 years to rebalance the economy and when you have a economy so reliant on one sector (banking) – whether that’s right or wrong (and I think with hindsight we all think the latter) it’s a position we are now in and now will have to put up with bankers – because the majority of them are not rich idiots like people like us to believe and struggle to bring a living in for a family. It would be plain suicidal to dump these people out onto the streets along with all the other unemployed citizens of this country. Certainly short term regulatory change is needed though – I should make that clear – things can’t go on ad hoc – but at the same time neither can all banks be changed at the click of our fingers. It’s been a problem a long time coming and so will take just as long if not longer to sort out

    1. Ahem. Chalk?

      Suffragettes used chalk and I’ve yet to read anything about the cost burden they placed on the husbands and brothers who cleaned it up. Perhaps in those days, people were sensible enough, indeed wise enough to understand the value of the natural world: do not dry your dishes each night, leave them to drip; gravity is ever such a wonderful invention: gravity will pull the water from the sky, down on to said chalk marks and wash it all away

      Bet you haven’t noticed yet, so here’s a clue: gravity does ever such a good job of drying your freshly washed plates, pots and pans too.

    2. The cuts aren’t needed – if large corporations paid the tax they owed, or if the Robin Hood tax was implemented, the revenue from either would far exceed the savings made through cuts each year. We also don’t need to ‘rebalance’ the existing economic system or to put up with the bankers being given free reign to further cripple the country for their own personal gains, we need to address the structural and legislative failings of our economic system (check out positivemoney.org.uk for an intelligent explanation of why the UK’s current economic problems does stem from bankers greed and how this can be simply addressed) and our political system, which is now blatantly just serving the interests of the few. How can Cameron not back the Robin Hood Tax and not be held to account for so obviously not serving the best interest of the country? How is that many many more old and vulnerable people will die this year, in this ‘first world’ country, simply because they can’t afford their heating bills, while our Government does nothing to legislate against energy company greed and simply tells our already grossly stretched health and social care agencies to be ready to visit vulnerable people daily – to do what, make sure the dead bodies aren’t left undiscovered? I am all for more chalk, or any other peaceful method that people want to use to expose the UK political corruption that is causing such mass misery and that so many people (presumably many of the 49% you refer to) still can’t see for the trees!

  2. Is Ed not doing what any good persuader does – start by addressing concerns of the critics of something, before moving on to support that same thing. ie, yes they may live in tents and need a shower BUT they’ve got a point; yes we don’t know what remedy they propose BUT their diagnosis is spot on.

    That’s a good thing, more please, especially after much of the left and Labour has stayed quiet on Occupy.

    I agree the line “We cannot leave it to the protesters to lead this debate.” would have been better as “we cannot *only* leave it to..”. But it’s also a rallying cry to all on the left and in Labour to add their voice to the aims of #occupy. Occupy isn’t about any single group of campers, protesters or activists. It’s about the ideas at it’s heart and the demand for change – the more people in power calling for that the better, no?

    1. Actually the more I think about it the more I agree with this article – Milliband missed a trick by appearing to stand just left of the middle – even Richard Littlejohn almost did that. The language of compromise was a flaw of New Labour for it could legitimise privatisation & neo-liberalism, provided they had Bono on board and gave 1% to a ‘good cause’. Pluralism on the other hand..

      Still, good to have him loosely aligned with the general agenda tho. By referencing both 1979 and 1997 maybe he is just saying these were turning points politically, and obviously not always for the better.

  3. You do realise that the article has been carefully written to ensure that a critical response comes from occupiers as well as the City?

    My view of British politics is that it’s collective bargaining between the labour movement and the capitalist class at the political level. In ’45, Labour, driven by strong labour movement, wins office with implicit agreement with capitalist class on a mixed-managed economy. In ’79, the Tories wins with a landslide driven by demoralised labour movement, divided Labour Party, and discredited government; and with the determination to press the reset button on the postwar consensus – although as with 2010, the agenda isn’t explicitly stated, natch.

    In ’97, Labour wins office with a landslide and for the first time financial markets are sanguine – Labour has cried uncle, the settlement forged in the 80s is accepted, and a non-aggression pact has been signed with the symbolic changes to Clause Four. The deal is, social democratic reforms in exchange for a willingness to follow the neo-liberal agenda. Given the “great doubling” of the global labour market and the effects of two decades of mass unemployment, for labour and Labour this looked like a good deal.

    Miliband’s game is to get a deal similar to ’45 or ’79 – from a position of strength with the other side discredited and weakened completely. Hence the overtures to social Liberals and the efforts to exacerbate Tory angst on Europe, the work on the producer/predator distinction, etc.

    This will be interesting: http://www2.lse.ac.uk/publicEvents/events/2011/20111125t1830vHKT.aspx. I’ll have to wait for the podcast…

    1. Good article though I wouldn’t call the original article a “masterclass”. Ed Miliband’s stance is transparent and annoyingly patronising. And, as this is a man who, apparently, encouraged his cabinet to read The Spirit Level in the summer break, the ducking and diving, and pandering to the supposed mainstream – middle England more like – in his public presentation is plain annoying and encourages the status quo to continue along with its right wing misrepresentations. What we need is straight talking, not this poor attempt at manipulative drivel. Though perhaps he is better left on the sidelines. His full blown support of Occupy would most likely be a liability!

  4. Why do people like Milliband so grossly underestimate the depth of the problem and their own irrelevance? Political institutions are at the heart of the corruption. It’s as if he thinks people are going to legitimise the authority of political parties by voting. As if political failure were not as much a cause of the problem as the corruption of finance – something Occupy will likely put back on the agenda before the electoral crisis.

  5. An excellent de-construction of the ‘me too’ Miliband waffle.

    On one of the concrete proposals that has been made by the Occupy movement world wide – the Tobin tax on financial transactions- Miliband’s chancellor in waiting Ed Balls has ruled this out as it would be harmful to the City. ie the interests of the 1%. He leads a Labour Party that has not yet jettisoned the Blairite philosophy of being ‘incredibly relaxed about the filthy rich.’

    Milibands internationalism stretches to Greece where his brother in arms Papandreau has pursued a policy of ‘a more responsible capitalism’ which means massive cuts. The Greek workers and people have replied with general strikes and protests that have wrecked the bankers plans.

  6. @George Wilson You say that to end cuts is impractical, which appears to miss the entire point of an occupy movement in the London Stock Exchange.

    99 of the 100 companies on the FTSE-100 have tax havens and do not pay their taxes, whilst ordinary people pay tax through forced deductions. Literally billions are lost every year through tax loopholes, enough billions to prevent the need for cuts.

    If we cut back on regime changes and alter the regime we have, and spend the money at home again no need for cuts.

    If we have enough billions to bail out the backs then we have a enough to bail out the people with their own money!

  7. “they are staging the debate that the ruling elite have studiously avoided since…2007.”

    My only disagreement with you Dan is that this debate has been avoided for much longer than this – capitalism is, after all, flawed from its very inception by a dependence on economic growth – just that the contradiction started impacting on the global financial system in a concrete way in 2007.

  8. “They present a challenge because they are staging the debate that the ruling elite have studiously avoided since the financial system – and the governing economic consensus – began to collapse in 2007” – rather,
    the ruling class has avoided this debate since the advent of capitalism

  9. This is the stupidest and most patronizing article I have read so far about the whole debate. You seem to suggest that only those who are out there camping have the right to criticize. Personally, I woke up this morning in my own bed, and I read this on my computer at home. Does that mean that I am a hypocrite if I support the protests?
    You are so desperate to criticize Ed Miliband, or possibly Labour as a whole, that you distort and purposely misinterpret whatever he says.
    This is far from constructive. I think we should welcome his support, get into dialogue with him and people like him. See it as a rallying call to all those who support the aims, but are unsure about the means. there are many of those.

    1. I don’t think the article says that at all! I don’t think anyone is suggesting that Ed Miliband’s words (well probably written by his spin doctor) have any credence, if he joins the camp himself, or that anyone else is obliged to, just that his wish to distance himself from the occupiers while aligning himself to the supposed “normal people” is patronising and contemptuous, considering that, as the leader of the opposition, he really should be making a strong case for reforms that will make a difference himself. It is because there is no credible opposition that the Occupy movement has arisen.

      If Labour really starts to stand up for the rights and needs of ordinary people, particularly the most disadvantaged, well, good! But don’t tell me that they weren’t previously aware of the problems. His article, which doesn’t really offer anything substantial and is written on the back of a protest by people other than The Labour Party, doesn’t give me much confidence. He’ll have to work harder to be convincing than that!

      Come on Ed!

  10. Since I’m part of the team that leads the negotiations with the City Council of Geneva, Switzerland and I have also participated in a live debate with the City Mayor I can say that this article is extremely good and important.

    This article responds to a common critic of the political mainstream all over the world. A critic that portrays occupations as a bunch of campers who complain but do not do anything, people who are not concerned about politics, people who are not to be taken seriously.

    Two phrases were enough to convince me :

    “We don’t need a movement that stretches beyond politics, we need a movement that stretches the boundaries of politics so that they include meaningful discussion of things that matter.
    We all need to act to secure a public status as political beings.”

    Dan I think you have an extremely precise perception about occupations and I am always inspired by your articles. Thus, I would like to have your advise on a somewhat unique problem that we have in Geneva. I will write you a message so that I don’t overwhelm the comment section with my question.

    Again, thank you for your contributions to the global occupation movement.

  11. Excellent blog post. I can imagine the panic at Labour HQ in the face of the Occupy movement finding the target they’re trying so hard to avoid – the banking system, and the public discussion of practical alternatives to business as usual. Miliband’s article proved the triumph of Auto-content Wizard™ in the Labour Party, and it couldn’t look more irrelevant than it does at the moment.

    I howled with laughter when I read Miliband’s original article, what with Labour’s ‘policy review’ after many months entirely failing to come up with any ideas which significantly depart from old New Labour’s, or engage with the current debates beyond a vague swipe at ‘preditory capitalism’. The occupiers’ refusal to accept electoral politicians’ ‘free’ market catechism of the last 30 years must really get under the LP’s skin. Labour made a pact with the bankers in 1997 which it is still trying to honour, even after the bankers have deserted them.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s