Will Ed Miliband redefine British politics?

Anthony Painter

Political energy is a rare and often beautiful thing. It can secure enormous change – sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse. Any political leader looks to identify sources of poltical energy that enable them to change the world in their direction.

So it is only natural that Ed Miliband should want to take a long hard look at the Occupy movement and consider whether within it lies the sort of energy that can shift the political argument decisively in his favour. Today’s oped in the Observer shows that he has decided that such energy is there. This is a fundamental and consequential strategic decision.

The basic starting point for anyone on the left is that capitalism must change. It cannot be desirable to sustain a society and economy that so concentrates power and wealth without looking for its fundamental reform. The irony of the moment is that it is not only society that is on the losing side but commerce as well. Successful companies are grounded in people and communities and understands long-term success relies on a sense of internal justice and social legitimacy to thrive. Companies that are driven by the moment are always running hard to catch up – prosperity is a long-term game.

What is up for debate is the right form of change – reform or revolution. The centre-left are reformist; it’s pretty much the defining disagreement of the centre v far left. Having alighted on reform there then arises the question of strategic pathway towards achieving that change.

Ed Miliband’s argument is essentially that we are at a moment of Gramscian paradigmatic shift (I’m hoping that you don’t follow my personal dictum of not reading beyond the point of any article that mentions Gramsci – stick with me for a bit longer.) Yet, in a twist, the old is dying yet the new is now being born. He disagrees with the detail of Occupy but no matter. It’s their energy that attracts him. And he sees it as the tip of an angry populist iceberg. They may not be the 99% but they are the 60% (NB a YouGov poll today suggests that support for the protests is at 20% with 46% opposed; though 39% support their aims – for now) The strategy is to connect with this populist cry for change and become its political vanguard defeating the Coalition politically, electorally, intellectually, and changing Britain for good. We are in a 1979 or 1945 moment: best when boldest.

It is a perfectably arguable case. There are empancipatory moments in politics; paradigms do shift. We’ve seen it happen in north Africa this year. And it did happen in the UK in 1979 and 1945 (though interestingly, in both cases, the institutional change had started to happen before the political change.)

When the arc of history not only bends but snaps in favour of greater justice it is a marvellous thing. The question is whether we are in such a moment. Is the energy really there for change in a particular direction: one that suits the world view of the centre-left?

Unfortunately, it’s not just a question of giving it a go and seeing where it ends up. By choosing to harness the energy you attach yourself to it also. Miliband is now attached to the Occupy movement today in a way he wasn’t yesterday. Its fate will help decide his fate.

Late 1960s America is illustrative of the risk of seeking to harness energy that ends up consuming you. David Brooks, a conservative commentator in the New York Times reminded us this week) that the era of Woodstock, Vietnam War protests and inner-city race riots was also the era of RIchard Nixon. The younger Miliband is known to be a fan of the younger Kennedy- rightly so. We don’t know what would have happened had Bobby Kennedy been alive to fight the 1968 election but we do know what happened in 1972. The Democrats, seeking to seize youthful energy for change, ended up with George McGovern as their candidate. McGovern lost the election by 517-17 (!) electoral college votes. The 1960s were the furnace for Republican domination of presidential politics for quarter of a century.

For every Mandela, King, Obama, or Lula there’s a McGovern, Dean, Royal, or Jesse Jackson. Both the leader and the moment have to be right. And remember, it wasn’t the great depression that secured victory for Labour. It was World War II. The British people seemed able to tolerate poverty without fundamental reform but once they were asked to give their lives as well then change had to come. Many point to the civil rights movement in the US as a counter example as the thing that makes it so interesting is that it was a choice, a change that didn’t have to come – at that time at least. It’s the exception – and one that responded to an unarguable moral case with a clear action required to reverse the injustice – that proves the rule.

This moment feels more like the messy 1930s with everything up for grabs rather than the energetic 1945 moment for change in a particular direction. If so, it requires a strategy of foundation buiding. Labour needs to show more self-awareness about its own failings and weaknesses before we start marching off to the promised land. Its challenge is to get a credible voice in the debate and to show that it is capable of responsible leadership. Labour has to show that it can be trusted again.

Such a strategic course may be less exciting and involve Labour denying itself a sense of emotional release. But if this energy of Occupy, of strikes (and how can Miliband give encouragement to Occupy but not public sector pensions strikers now?), of student protests (ditto), of anger at bankers and the cuts is not enough to take it all the way then it’s wise to unhitch the wagon now before the train runs out of track. 2015 and beyond will be about credible and reponsible national leadership.

Cameron et al have shown themselves in Europe, at the G20 and in their willingess to cause immense damage to our economy, public services, and society that they are not capable of strong and capable leadership. The worry is that rather than that vacuum being filled by Labour it is left open. It is terrifying to think what may fill it. Whatever it is, the residue of misguided populism throughout history is there for all to see.

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