Sunday, 9 November 2014

Why I supported Ed Miliband

The summer of 2010 seems like a lifetime ago. It seems like a different world, almost. There have been so many ups and downs since then and I am a completely different person. As a young person you spend so much time looking to the future that on the rare occasions you look back it's a shock at how much has happened.

The summer of 2010 did not feel, at the time, like a great time to be a member of the Labour Party. Obviously political rivalries and arguments don't matter. The really important things in life are things that even politics touch only tangentially: love, family, adventures. But it really did feel that to be a member of the Labour Party at that time you had to decide, and the question was vital. Were you on one side or the other? Were you with David or with Ed?

Although David Miliband would have been a massive disappointment to his supporters on the right wing of the Labour Party, the fact was that he had the support of those people who believed what, in my mind, was a totally mad idea. That the Labour Party lost the 2010 election because Gordon Brown abandoned Blairism, didn't hand over our public services to enough private providers, and refused to hike VAT or agree with Tory spending plans.

The Labour Party lost the 2010 election for many reasons. The recession. The fact that even before the recession, living standards had been flatlining for years. Gordon Brown as a leader. The fact that winning four terms in a row is incredibly rare in this country and the wider democratic world. 

We also lost votes because of immigration and welfare, but it is worth noting that Labour policies on those matters had broad continuity between Blair and Brown: in terms of actual policy, Brown was even probably  'tougher' on those things.

Anyway, we lost votes for a number of reasons. But there is no way that we lost because there weren't enough academies in the country. 

But that was what these people believed in. David Miliband didn't believe in all of it, but with him in charge, they would be in charge. And although of course Labour could have won under David Miliband, I seriously doubted it.

However, the reason I doubted it wasn't really to do with policy. How many people vote on detailed policy? No matter what we said or did, the broad mass of British people would still believe the Labour Party was softer on immigration and worse for the economy than the Tory Party. Those are the stereotypes that have stuck, even through Blair. The other thing they would consistently think is that we were part of the Westminster establishment that spunked their money on bird houses and moats.

The only small thing we could do to tackle this was to have someone as leader who would look different and sound different and be different. And David Miliband looked like a dweeb, sounded like a dweeb and was a dweeb. He was a career politician who talked like politics was a PPE seminar. He didn't look like he understood ordinary people and he didn't look like a confident leader. He would probably use phrases like 'a tsunami of craperoo' Sound familiar?

In the summer of 2010 there were two things I wanted from the leadership contest: to stop the supporters of David Miliband driving Labour into the wilderness (see for example the German SPD for how low the Third Way can really take a party) and to have a leader who felt vaguely normal.

The tragedy of 2010 was that very quickly these two objectives were made incompatible. Somehow we let the media or the unions or MPs trick us into thinking that we could only choose between two brothers. Two brothers! In the party of progress and equality! And while my brother and I look and sound and are pretty different, Ed and David Miliband are basically clones. Yes, Ed ran what apparently passes for a 'left wing' campaign in our narrow political landscape, but again, what matters in a leader isn't so much policy as whether they can be the ambassador for whatever policy the convoluted policy making process of the party churns out. Whether they can turn prose into poetry and back again.

I thought the best of a not great bunch in 2010 was Andy Burnham: although he could have appeared lightweight, he looked and sounded and, despite being a former SPAD, was a vaguely normal person. For what it's worth, with his 'aspirational socialism' he actually had some interesting ideas about how to learn the lessons of both 'old' and 'new' Labour.

But he was quickly sidelined, and we had these brothers to choose from. And therefore I had to choose Ed. Although I wasn't anywhere near as heavily involved as some people, I spent many hours and days campaigning for him. Because the one thing that I contemplated with horror was David Miliband as leader, I campaigned as often and as hard as my schedule would allow.

I loved the Ed Miliband campaign and the summer of 2010, because of the brilliant people I met, the way it was an underdog, grassroots campaign that was slowly gaining momentum, and because it had real passion. And Ed really did motivate us. It sounds incredible now, but when he spoke he spoke human, and he inspired us. I forgot the misgivings I had when I had seen him on TV before, and became a true Mili-believer. I was overjoyed when he won and I thought his first conference speech was great and I rather randomly hugged him at some point during the conference.

Just like Gordon Brown, I genuinely think if Ed Miliband spoke to every voter in the country, he would win in a landslide. 

I don't think there's anything particularly wrong with Labour's current policy platform: we want to do lots of nice things that will improve people's lives in lots of small ways. It's not especially inspiring, but politics can't really be. There are some potentially transformational things in there if everything goes well, but the idea it is some extreme left wing agenda is lunacy. So too is the idea that Ed Miliband doesn't understand aspiration or the lower middle class or whatever. He understands them, he just can't inspire them.

The genius of Tony Blair was to make a rather modest platform sound like a new dawn for Britain. 

People are more cynical after the crash and I doubt any Labour politicians four years out of government could inspire people in the same way.

But dear God, how have we sunk so low? How is Nigel Farage the most inspiring politician in Britain today? It's not like UKIP supporters are out of bounds to us: some polls suggest they believe some fairly left wing things in addition to the whole anti-immigrant thing. But he talks like a real person. There are no easy solutions, and a majoritarian party knows that, but I can't put Labour's message into a snappy soundbite. Vote Labour to raise the minimum wage to £8 by 2020?? What??

The Labour Party has so many good people in it, in touch with their communities, feeding that back to the leadership. We've had four years, it's time to harden that work into a proper platform. I don't care what it is, I just want to be able to say it. I don't want the Labour Party to go left or go right, I just want this ridiculous government out.

I think Ed Miliband will be prime minister. I just can't see where the Tory votes might come from. Are the Tories really going to hold on to all those seats where Lord Ashcroft's polls put them behind? How? Are we going to somehow get Cameron-mania? It's not as if Cameron is Britain's most popular man. The niggling doubts Labour MPs and members are feeling come from the feeling that the majority of British people seem to feel that this man Ed Miliband can't possibly be prime minister. But I just have no idea how he won't be. In a coalition, with a derisory share of the vote, behind the Tories, maybe. And that's something we should be ashamed of. But not PM? No way.

Ed Miliband is a good man. I hope he becomes a great prime minister. But I am so so sad that British politics has come to this and that I played a tiny role in making it happen. I don't think changing leader would cost us the election: it would probably get us the majority that we need to really change things.

More importantly, if we got someone good, we might just be able to put the brakes on the horrific levels of cynicism in British politics existing now and the tidal wave coming when Ed Miliband's minority government carries on cutting public services.

But that's the problem: who is good? The good people we have are either unwilling or divisive.

Sometimes you have to admit you got things wrong. I'm not sorry I helped stop David Miliband. But I feel sad it has come to this. I'm sorry I supported Ed Miliband. I'm sorry we ended up at the point where our only choice was between these people. I'm sorry we have a party dominated by career politicians and insiders.

I just hope we can learn the lessons from this strange period in the Labour Party's history. And they aren't (depending on your taste) 'don't pander to the base' or 'don't be too cautious'. The lesson is 'just try, please, for the love of God, to be normal.'

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