Milibland More Like
Ed Milliband’s “One Nation” speech revealed him to be a somewhat likable and affable performer. It also revealed him to be an absolutely vapid man, utterly devoid of intellectual sustance or ideas.
Let’s take a quick swing over the substance of the speech itself and make a theoretical comment in passing. Millband’s essential appeal was to “One Nation” - Cameron, it is said, is insufficiently one nation. One Nation means that the whole of society, as a community should come under the rubric of the nation. The One Nation should pull together, as seen in events such as the Olympics. This means that, as is his standard line, both benefit claimants and the super rich avoiding their taxes should pull together. If this all feels a bit familar this is because it really is. These are precisely the tropes rehearsed by one David Cameron in his own time in opposition. A brief survey of pre-election Conservative speeches shows this to be the case - the rhetoric against casino capitalists in the banks, against child poverty and the Broken Society. Cameron spoke of responsibility at the top of society and at the bottom long before Miliband did. The Conservative party entered the election with the slogan that “we’re all in this together” alongside the concept of “The Big Society”. Cameron’s first conference speech as prime minster called for people to “pull together…come together. Let’s work, together, in the national interest”. Cameron’s 2009 Conservative party conference speech ended with a paen calling for the nation to “pull together, come together, work together” and then “we will get through this together”. In 2012 Cameron said ” [Britain needs] To come together, to join together, to work together as a country”. Actually the final one was Miliband. Indeed even the style of presentation - the no notes wander about - is straight from the Cameron play book - a trick he pulled in his 2005 conference speech that may have been a contributing factor in Cameron gaining the Conservative leadership in the first place.
One might say that this is pure appeal to nationalism - which is true and disturbing. Yet it is the inflection of this nationalism, precisely the rhetoric of a nation as community that is interesting. The presence of Michael Sandel at the Labour party conference shows that communitarianism hangs heavy in the air, doubtless influenced by both Maurice Glasman and John Cruddas and the idea of Blue Labour. But so did it with David Cameron and the idea of The Big Society alongside Phillip Blond - a direct attempt to appeal to community as the third place in which society is moored, apart from capital and the state. And so, in turn did it do with Tony Blair. In 2006 Blair was stating that “At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community…I mean that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world”. That “The spirit of the times today is community”. Why is communitarianism always the trope of opposition parties in the deeply neoliberal UK? This is certainly something for further thought, but it appears that communitarianism is the court philosophy of neoliberalism - the immediate go to of a modern politician.
There is an important question here of audience: for whom is this speech for? It is difficult to imagine it appealing to party activists in the most part. The addition of Disraeli, and the usage of the One Nation trope of the Conservative party is the tell: this speech is not aimed at the country, but to the sphere of PPE educated journalists who will appreciate the “cleverness” of this ploy, and relate it to the media as shrewd political manuvering. Where the public is here is largely unimportant - they are merely passive, mediated through the barometers of opinion polls, subjected only to (again heavily mediated) soundbites. The sphere of commentary journalism will substitute for any real public discourse.
Yet there is something very telling about Miliband’s One Nation move, a move that is symptomatic of the entire sweep of the history of the Labour party. A history which finds its best recorder in Miliband’s own father, who is as is well known the Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, a figure who gets a passing mention in the speech. Miliband senior’s Parliamentary Socialism remains the definite account of the early history of the Labour party particularly through the lens of the party as a medium of class struggle and a vector of socialism. What is vital about the work is its refutation of the “good old days of socialism” view of Labour. I urge you to read the book in full, but one of its essential theses is that whenever a situation of intensive class struggle arose, or moments of general crisis, the Labour party prioritises the interest of “the nation”, understood through the lens of a very strict concept of the limits of parliamentary democracy precisely demarcated by those who ruled. To give example - during World War I Labour along with the main unions brought in anti-strike leglislation and pay freezes in order to work towards the goal of the national interest in winning the war. The obsession with parliament is precisely the obsession with One Nation - the two reinforce one another. Even in its early years, Labour cautioned against strike action precisely as it held the national community to ransom - preferring to move through leglislation as required. Ed Miliband’s says his father “wouldn’t agree with many of the things I stand for”. This isn’t a cheap move - but revealing the structural dimension of Labour that Ed clearly displays. One that means it will never be the conduit for anything approaching left-wing politics.
Doubtless at this point, the pro-Labour leftist will reply that Labour remains the only realistic hope for the Left. Fortunately, Ralph Miliband already wrote the reply to this in 1976 in his piece “Moving On”. Miliband is short here “the belief in the effective transformation of the Labour Party into an instrument of socialist policies is the most crippling of all illusions to which socialists in Britain have been prone”. It contains answers to the common talking points - particularly on the links of Labour to the unions.
“It is however one form of expression of a much more general aspiration, which has held generation after generation of socialists in its thrall, and which consists in the hope of ‘capturing’ the Labour Party for the adoption and the carrying out of socialist policies. The point is not here that this is an illusion but rather that it is the obverse phenomenon which has very commonly occurred, namely the ‘capturing’ of the militants by the Labour Party. This is not only true at the parliamentary level, though it is there that it has been most obviously true. But it has also occurred at the grassroots: people on the left who have set out with the intention of transforming the Labour Party have more often than not ended up being transformed by it, in the sense that they have been caught up in its rituals and rhythms, in ineffectual resolution-mongering exercises, in the resigned habituation to the unacceptable, even in the cynical acceptance and even expectation of betrayal.”
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