Crisis? Of course there’s a bloody crisis. Most people in Britain feel squeezed and hassled, working harder for less, while the wealthy and powerful seem to get away with it still. And most people think politics has no answer. We, those interested in politics, seem to have few ideas, little capacity for leadership, and no passion.
These should be our days. It should be a time of hope for Labour. The party founded to organise ordinary people should be channelling popular rage into political action. We should be turning peoples’ frustration into a big majority for a reforming government. Instead, like the mood of all parties, Labour’s mood is lacklustre and unenthusiastic. Far too many Labour activists and backbench MPs feel alienated and anxious.
But this is far more than just a failure of our party’s leader. The obsession with one man shows badly what’s wrong with our politics. To put it bluntly, we think others are going to do the job for us. We expect ‘leadership’ to come from somewhere else, most importantly from Ed Miliband and the tiny band of advisors who surround him. When there isn’t enough energy or drive from the centre, too many of us despair and sit on our hands. I’ve spent far too long sitting with friends who work in politics moaning about what someone else isn’t doing. The time could better be spent organising our own action.
For a party of the left, we have a weirdly bourgeois view of politics. We think our job – the job of the activists, the rank and file, back bench MPs, junior policy advisors – is to sell things made by other people. We imagine politics is a matter of shifting packages which we have no part in shaping. We vote for the leader, but that’s it. From then on are supposed just to trust them to come up with the right vision, policies or narrative, and have a compelling enough character. It’s no wonder when things don’t go our way we’re grumpy.
It is a strangely anti-democratic, deferential view of political action. It limits the power we have to shape the world around us to a single, occasional moment of choice, the election. It provides little incentive for people who don’t have irrational political ambitions to be involved in politics. It assumes the rest of us are happy with a passive and, frankly, humiliating role.
But the most important thing is it gets us off the hook. If it’s someone else’s fault, if we were just following orders, we don’t need to blame ourselves when things go wrong. Our lack of courage has psychological advantages.
Yes, Ed Miliband and the shadow cabinet could be doing a better. They could be more effective at telling a clear story about what Labour will do in power. It’s a travesty that when the two Eds wanted to show they’re getting on with the job they both gave a muddled list of themes (is it the NHS, the cost of living crisis, the next generation, or something else) with no over-arching story.
But the crisis is not of their making. It comes from the idea that only a tiny group of national politicians should have power. Ed Miliband’s problem is just a part of the collapse of a model of politics which we – us as well as him – cling onto even though it is dying.
The reality is that national governments have only so much power. The capacity of ministers’ to crunch levers and deliver a better Britain is limited. Change comes from leadership at every level – global, continental, national, local. It needs the city mayor, the good council leader, the local MP, the ward campaigner, the community activist, the school governing body. Labour’s job is to win the next election, yes. But it should also be a force that coordinates and leads political action at every level, from a campaign in my street to the European Union.
There are some brilliant Labour MPs, parliamentary candidates and councillors, who understand all this now. They are the ones who don’t obsess about over the mad twists and turns of the BBC’s coverage of the latest ‘leadership crisis’. They know all power doesn’t exist in Whitehall. They use their authority to get people working together in the places they represent. They cajole and lobby and organise at whatever level the power to get things done lies. They win for the same reason the Lib Dems always do better than their national polling – they understand how to make things happen. They shouldn’t worry about their seats because they’ve woven themselves into the lives of the places they represent, and so can hold onto the seats whatever the national electoral tide.
The problem is that too many MPs, like too many people at every other political level, have lost their capacity to take the initiative. It’s as if when we join a political party we lose our ability to come up with our own ideas, to take the initiative and lead for ourselves. That’s fine for those of us who are amateurs, and have other jobs. But it is a scandalous denial of responsibility for those who are paid to do politics by our taxes.
If Ed Miliband was brave and radical he’d stop pretending he needs to have all the answers. Instead, he’d lay out a few big themes, and then argue spur the rest of us on to think, to act, to create our own forms of collective action. He’d lead a radical devolution of power in practice, in which local MPs, councillors, assemblies of people in towns and cities make the collective decisions that shape our lives, not national ministers of bureaucrats. He won’t. He’s a decent, intelligent man stuck with the narrow view of political power he learnt during all those years working for Gordon Brown, so it’s unlikely he’ll do that. But no matter.
We, Labour, should never have imagined everything comes down to one person to start with. If Ed won’t turn our politics away from the crazy cult of lone leadership which dominates Britain today, we need to do it for him. Labour in Britain’s nations, regions, cities, towns and counties will recover its own self-confidence, and create its own campaigns, its own plans, its own manifestos. We can fundraise ourselves, organise, campaign. It’s time to stop moaning, to stop imagine somehow else is holding us back, and get on with the job of doing politics for ourselves.