Everywhere you look, they’re saying the same thing. Labour is in hock to the unions, not friendly enough to big business. In The Spectator, ally of the working man Nick Cohen demonises Unite’s Len McCluskey, the evil genius who controls Labour. In the Telegraph, resident Blairophile Dan Hodges stuffs his usual self-satisfied, evidence-free fluff down the reader’s throat. (Didn’t he tell us Ed Miliband would lose?) Equally untethered from evidence and sense, the Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland tells Labour to stop worrying and embrace Blair.
This array of performances is notable for a couple of reasons. First, for its ideological homogeneity: how is it that from right to left, the British media peddles the same delusions? Remember that this consensus reflects a deeper homogeneity. During the 2005 election campaign, Tory campaign manager Maurice Saatchi admitted that there was “no ideological difference between the parties”. David Cameron says he’s the “heir to Blair”. Blair himself would rather Cameron’s Tories governed unencumbered by coalition. Calling for Labour to abandon the unions and embrace Blairism is to call for the death of mainstream politics as anything but elite management by alternating wings of the business party – the same death that has driven ordinary people away from formal politics in droves, especially in Labour’s heartlands.
Second, these commentaries provide not evidence-based “signposts” but “weathercocks” reflecting the direction of political wind. Labour’s leadership contest is aptly dubbed the “Which Blair Project”: Liz Kendall pursues an agenda almost indistinguishable from the Tories’ – low top-rate tax “just to make a point”, slashing benefits and public spending, privatising health and education, boosting military spending, “wrapping our arms around business” – but is not so different from her opponents. Yvette Cooper claims Miliband was too hostile toward business, with which Labour must “reset” its relationship, backs Osborne’s corporation tax cuts and talks of dumping even the feeble Mansion Tax. Andy Burnham would abandon “the politics of envy” – that is, of class – and all candidates talk up “aspiration” and “helping people get on” – transparent euphemisms for abandoning social justice and appeasing the rich. “Aspiration” in this sense is an Orwellian inversion entailing its opposite: ignoring social immobility, instead further impeding the life-chances of the poor.
As Labour tilts right, the political cost of knocking austerity-pushing, benefit-snatching, immigrant-bashing “Red Ed” as some kind of latterday Lenin is approximately zero. Accordingly, like water running downhill, the columnists kick the unions and kiss the Blairites.
“The Left”, crows Barclay Brothers-funded Blairite Dan Hodges, indeed all who recommended voting Labour, should utter the three magic words “We. Were. Wrong.” And not just that – “Hopelessly wrong. Utterly wrong. Completely wrong.”
His evidence is – to put it mildly – comical. He identifies two columnists and one leader column, selects the most damning-sounding pre- and post-election snippets, declares them self-contradictory, and basks.
Thus the “Guardian … two weeks ago was telling us that the answer to all our problems was Ed Miliband,” but now backs Alan Johnson – a different person – for leader. “So was the Guardian wrong when it told us a fortnight ago Ed was the nation’s saviour. [sic]”
Well, what did the Guardian actually say about Johnson?
“Labour … should have agreed on an experienced interim leader who commands general confidence … Ideally it should still do this. Someone like Alan Johnson would be perfect for that interim role.”
In Miliband’s absence, they suggest someone like Johnson become interim leader, pending leadership elections. This is the Guardian’s great “egg-on-face” moment?
Here, moreover, is the pre-election Guardian on its messianic redeemer Red Ed:
“Of course there are misgivings. The party has some bad instincts – on civil liberties, penal policy and on Trident, about which it is too inflexible. Questions linger over Ed Miliband’s leadership, and whether he has that elusive quality that inspires others to follow. … In each area [of economic and social policy], Labour could go further and be bolder. … This newspaper has never been a cheerleader for the Labour party. We are not now.”
As worship goes, it’s hardly devout, is it?
But even had the paper declared Miliband a potential saviour, what exactly would that have proved? Perfect policies do not entail electoral success – and on the latter question, the Guardian was simply silent. Why, then, should Hodges expect its editors to grovel and self-flagellate before his almighty, clairvoyant self?
Independent columnist Steve Richards (mystifyingly labelled “the Left” along with the Guardian’s editors) receives the same treatment. Richards embarrassed himself, we are told, by claiming the Tories “underestimated” Miliband, failing to recognise “there might be more to the Labour leader”. Note that this is a relative judgment on Miliband’s later personal performances, not an absolute prediction on Labour’s prospects.
But this was not all pre-election Richards had to say. He went on:
“The change needs to be placed in context. Miliband is still well behind David Cameron in terms of personal ratings, and he may yet not win. Most recent polls suggest that the Conservatives are ahead. … His strengths, as well as his much reported and significant weaknesses, were in front of their eyes from the beginning.”
Again, Richards’ measured, lukewarm appraisal focused only on Miliband; it offered no prediction about Labour’s fortunes. Even casting Miliband as a virtuoso would have implied no final judgment on the latter, and of course Richards made none.
Where, then, was Richards’ post-election reverse-ferret? Here, apparently:
“The capacity to project, to engage with voters in a way that appears to be genuine, is not an added extra but an essential demand of leadership.”
Again, this passage focuses solely on the characteristics of Labour’s leader (it doesn’t mention Miliband), and again there is no actual U-turn. A measured assessment of Miliband’s flaws and strengths has become … a measured assessment of Miliband’s flaws and strengths.
And so to “Seamus Milne” – his alleged howler a June 2014 article claiming Miliband “has started to challenge [private vested] interests in a way no leading British politician has for a generation”. For Hodges, this identifies “radicalism”, though it might just as well reflect only how low New Labour set the bar. Which it does, of course.
But here are a few other highlights from June 2014 Milne:
“some of Labour’s commitments … certainly point to a different kind of government from those run by Tony Blair or Gordon Brown …
“But there’s also the Miliband who is photographed with the Sun, struggles to find a strike he won’t condemn, backs benefit sanctions on the young and has signed up to austerity and cuts that risk undermining economic reconstruction and hitting Labour supporters hardest, while failing to appease the City or the media.
“Mixed messages and triangulation feed the sense that the Westminster elite are all part of the same game, and sap the credibility of commitments that clearly break with the past. Miliband’s caution and equivocation partly stem from his lack of support in the shadow cabinet and parliament, and a determination to maintain party unity at all costs.
“But they also reflect the fact that he himself is a product of New Labour politics, and has failed to mobilise his own base of support. As one prominent Labour figure puts it, Miliband has broken with New Labour “intellectually but not emotionally, or as a way of doing business”.
Milne’s post-election embarrassment? Citing Miliband’s “modest departures from the New Labour script”. (Hodges misquotes him.) Quite the U-turn, you’ll agree.
But Milne, we’re told, made another volte-face:
“In June, criticism of Miliband was solely being driven by a fear [sic] “with Labour’s parliamentary boundary advantage and a little help from Ukip, he might actually win”. After Labour lost Seamus [sic] suddenly felt compelled to remind his readers, “Miliband’s personal ratings were never within spitting distance of Cameron’s”.”
The first is, of course, not a prediction, but a diagnosis of certain people’s fears. As for the second, we’re again comparing apples with oranges – an entire party’s prospects with one man’s ratings. Nevertheless, in June 2014, Milne had written:
“It’s not that Miliband doesn’t have a communication problem, or struggle to connect with the working class voters Labour needs, in particular, to win back. He clearly does …”
And Milne knew that Miliband’s opponents feared his success, because he cited the evidence:
““He may be weird, but the way things are going, he may also be prime minister,” the Daily Mail warned readers this week. And it’s not just the rightwing press that feels that way. “We better hope” that the voters “won’t have Ed”, one New Labour veteran told Rupert Murdoch’s Sunday Times. “If he won, it would set the party back 20 years.””
Hodges is simply a clown. He can barely string a sentence together without making some glaring error. He must have either flagged these articles in his memory or parsed the archives for them, extracting the most damning quotes he could lay his hands on, ignoring those that butchered his case and even then failing to produce a single “gotcha”. Blairite to the end, he produces a dodgy dossier of demonstrable duds. Did he think no-one would check his claims? Or did he simply not care?
Yet on this non-existent basis he proclaims, from his Olympian perch:
“… before these doughty polemicists of the Left begin to once again call the odds – to tell us how Labour lost because it was insufficiently radical, or because Ed Miliband was still in hock to the Blairites … could we have possibly have [sic] some sort of acknowledgement they were – you know – wrong?
“About everything. The backlash against austerity. The populism of the New Politics. The imminent overthrow of the old order.”
Hodges, remember, claimed in 2010 that we should “keep an eye on” Jim Murphy, hinting he was “a contender” for Labour leader. If only unlucky Jim had channelled Hodges against the SNP! He’d have understood that there’s no populism about just now, no backlash against austerity. Like Nick Clegg and his Orange-Book Blairites, he’d know that veering rightward yields electoral good fortune. That his “Red Tories” just weren’t Tory enough.
In reality, the left pointed out repeatedly that Labour would lose – that alongside its lack of a coherent “vision”, its attacks on benefits, public spending and immigrants would alienate those they needed to mobilise – and were vindicated. The party’s reflexive plunge into the Blairite acid-bath, then, is far from inevitable. Hodges’ aim is to con readers into believing the opposite: that Miliband’s failure can only be interpreted as Blairite vindication. It’s like watching a Ptolemist see the sun come up, then claim it proves them right about everything. Miliband steps halfway out of the path of an oncoming car, and is mown down. “He could have saved himself!” Hodges cries. “If only he’d stayed put.”