Listen up, Ed! Jonathan Ford‘s got some invaluable advice for you.
I read James Forsyth’s column in The Spectator the other day. I don’t mean to degrade the sparkling eloquence of Forsyth’s prose, or the profound wisdom of his analysis, but here’s the gist: adorable newborn aside, Ed Miliband’s first 3 months as Labour leader haven’t exactly been great shakes.
So what’s Ed’s problem? Well, let’s look at what he’s doing right first. Coherent message on the economy, the issue that’ll define the next 4 and-a-half years and beyond? No. Clear alternative on tuition fees, the biggest story of the day? No. Shadow Chancellor who doesn’t routinely contradict/embarrass you? No. Well, how about a policy then? Just one? Anything? No, no, no. More noes than Angelica Huston.
It all sounds pretty ominous. Labour MPs certainly think so. Forsyth relays that Westminster’s already abound with whisperings and murmurings and nods and winks about when Ed’s head’ll roll. Surprising, given that we’re only 3 months into his tenure; but maybe not all that surprising, given that his colleagues never voted for him.
Meantime, big brother’s watching. David might’ve left the frontbench, but he’s still hanging about Portcullis House often enough to remind Labour MPs what they’re missing, and to get the rest of us thinking, ‘I wonder what he’s up to?’
So what’s Ed to do? How about a credible alternative to the coalition’s programme of unpopular public service cuts? Or a credible alternative to any coalition policy whatsoever? Just one? Anything?
But for Forsyth, Miliband’s problem’s have got nothing to do with policy. In fact, he shouldn’t go anywhere near a policy or anything like a policy for as long as it’s politically possible. Instead, Ed’s got to ‘focus on introducing himself to the public’, meaning the process of fashioning brand Miliband, and the compelling personal narrative that goes with it. In other words, Ed should spend most of his time thinking about himself.
Most obligingly, Forsyth even tells Miliband what that compelling personal narrative should be: how his family fled Nazi-invaded Belgium to safe haven Britain in 1940, and how that’s made Ed the exceptional human being that he is today, notwithstanding his penchant for brotherly betrayal. With watering eyes, lumpy throat, and trembling voice, Ed should take this emotional, powerful, and (after a few rehearsals) heartfelt back-story to the demos via the chat show circuit and the features pages of Women’s Own and Grazia. It’s the sort of thing that if you saw an American politician do on Oprah you’d recoil, roll and cover your eyes, and lambast at the box, ‘What a knob! Only in America!’
And Forsyth’s stint as SpAd doesn’t stop there. Because eventually Ed’ll have to pull out a policy from his hat. So implores Forsyth: when that time comes, regrettable as it may be, just make sure that you’ve got a celebrity on hand, who knows the square root of sod all about policy, to front a review or a consultation or a casual chat into policy, whatever one it may be. The point of celebrity endorsement’s that it makes ‘boring’ policymaking ‘eye-catching’ and worthy of our attention.
‘Just be as vague and vacuous as possible’, Forsyth might as well be saying.
But I’ll tell you what’s even more depressing?
That Forsyth’s spot on.
You and I might say that we’re only interested in substance, not style, spin, and sound bite, and that Forsyth’s elevation of presentation politics above policy debate’s not for us, but in the words of our laconic and diffident Mayor, that’s ‘bollocks, nonsense, bollocks’.
We’re forever complaining about politicians who deceive or patronise us, and we insist that all we’re after’s some ‘grown up discussion’ (the phrase that Miliband used in his leader’s conference speech in Manchester 3 months ago), but we’re actually kidding ourselves.
Just look at our Prime Minister. When David Cameron was elected Tory leader 5 years ago, he didn’t give policy the time of day. That’s because he was too busy journeying to the Arctic Circle to be photographed hugging huskies. It was all about defining himself and redefining his contaminated party. The caption for the husky snap said that Cameron’s Conservatives were young, modern, green, and nothing like the Tory Party that you used to know and abominate.
Why did Cameron do this? And why does Forsyth advise that Miliband does the same? Because it works.
Our political leaders are rational, self-interested agents. They wouldn’t peddle sob stories about running from the Nazis, or pay for photo ops on ice caps, or draft in Lord Sugar to help formulate policy if we were really as disinterested in these things as we say. The truth is that most of us would much rather see our politicians on Loose Women talking about ‘what makes them tick’, than some boring old discussion about policy.
The politics that James Forsyth describes might suck, but it’s the politics that we deserve.