I just spent the afternoon in a room off Oxford Street at the Royal Institute of British Architects, surrounded by people in slightly ill-fitting suits, some sat awkwardly on a stage and a few TV cameras. Oh, and Ed Miliband; the man who in ten months time could be the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. And I was here to listen to Ed talk about why a middle-aged, straight, white, Oxford educated man explaining how he, despite the odds, can be and should be elected Prime Minister. Proof if you ever needed it, that British politics is completely and utterly broke.
If you don't laugh, you'd cry
I stood at the back of the room and laughed
As if in 2014 a privileged guy who’s been at the top of politics for something like 20 years is having to defend the idea that he can lead the country. Here’s a man who wants to go around the world and make it a better place and yet here he is at RIBA in Oxford Street having to admit that he can’t eat a bacon sandwich without looking weird.
And you have to laugh. Because you see the media on the left hand side of the room feeding the same bubble as the spin doctors and strategists on the right. The forced applause. The standing ovation. The woman who stands up on the stage with her arms held up high like some sort of church preacher trying to get people to join in. She’s flapping her arms like she’s about to take off. Is she from the party? I don’t know. But she looks ridiculous. It all looks ridiculous – it is ridiculous.
You have to laugh because otherwise you’d cry. Out of 2956 words, Ed spoke just 343 of them about the international crisis unfolding in Gaza. But then spent roughly twenty five minutes talking about why not being able to eat a bacon sandwich properly shouldn’t discount you from being Prime Minister. Yes, really. A quick intro on foreign affairs and then the rest ‘confronting his critics’ about his failure to look ‘right’.
Welcome to the 2015 UK Presidential Election.
You see, on celebrity politics, Ed said; “If you want the politician from central casting, it’s just not me, it’s the other guy”
But I have to stop you there, Ed. Really?
Because I’m not sure you really do look all that different from David Cameron, or Nick Clegg.
I’m not sure why any of you really are all that much of a change. Because to be honest, isn't half the problem that all three party leaders sound exactly the same, look the same and, to some extent, say the same thing? Because that’s what people have been saying to me for the past six years. Of course I’ve always wanted Ed to stand up and say that politics can be, should be and must be more than the celebrity focused soundbite culture that it is today. But I honestly don’t think Ed is some kind of martyr for his speech. That somehow it’s brave to get up there and point out that British politics is completely and utterly failing at keeping people interested, engaged or involved. That's obvious.
But to make it worse, Ed decides to turn the Oxford degree educated, special advisor, son of a Marxist professor cliche into some kind of X Factor style sob-story and make himself out to be some sort of ground-breaking new model of politics and leadership. Ed, and his team, decided not to say how ludicrous that is, but instead made it seem like some kind of legitimate gripe.
The party wants to be for the squeezed middle, but is coming across more middle class nightmare
Getting people past the idea that Ed talks a bit ‘weirdly’ is not the challenge British politics faces. And he referenced it briefly – all but for a second.
Newly appointed Cabinet ministers, women, judged for what they wear down Downing Street. Apparently Sajid Javid’s appointment as Culture Secretary is only ‘tokenistic’. In fact, a disabled MP can’t even give a speech from the Dispatch Box. Are they ‘too disabled’ to be Prime Minister? What about the kid who’s a bit camp – are they ‘too gay’ to be Prime Minister? What about a trans Member of Parliament , would they be 'not quite PM material’?
This isn’t about having different ‘qualities’ of leadership as Miliband said today. This has to be about ripping up the book. Because if we’re now saying a guy who’s a white, middle-aged, straight man can’t be our PM, then can someone please tell me who can be? And if we don’t, well – we’ll go around for another 15 years debating whether you have to ‘look right’ to be Prime Minister; our politics will be as vacuous as it has been for too long, our politicians will carry on being inward looking and boring – quite frankly, just pretty piss poor at what they’re meant to do – and we’ll be left with no one actually tackling the problems we face. We’ll end up with Theresa May and Philip Hammond running our country in 2017, out of the EU.
The 2015 general election and the government that it forms will be generation defining. Because if it’s going to be five more years of this bitter, alienating, divisive and pathetic form of democracy that we have now, then by 2020 I wouldn’t be surprised if people have just switched off all together. We are at a turning point and if we don’t get it right it will not be easy to turn back. But I don’t think it’s too late to do something different, to make our politics better.
People don’t like politicians. They don’t trust them, the party or the promises they make. But I’m sorry, but it doesn’t get fixed with words.
Ed’s solution? “If politics is going to respond to the distrust people feel, it has to start by talking about the things that matter to you.”
You see I’m just not sure that trust in politicians is going to suddenly emerge quite that easily.
I don’t think talking about freezing house bills is going to fix the problems in the energy market.
I don’t think pledging to ‘repeal’ a bill, whatever that even means, is going to solve the crisis the NHS faces.
I don’t think single issue campaigns are going to turn people out in their droves to vote.
I don’t think these ‘pledges’ are helping to restore trust, because people don’t trust politicians to stick to their promises.
And Ed agrees. Well, he did in 2009. He called it “The Politics of Now”. He said that the ‘Politics of Now’ appealed to people’s self-interest and was about “meeting immediate needs and improving people’s lives in ways which markets alone will not do.” Sound familiar?
But back then Ed thought the ‘politics of now’ was shallow.
That there remain hard choices that would not be tackled by just engaging in the ‘politics of now’ –
“So we need to move beyond the politics of ‘now’ to a politics of the common good, a politics that treats people not simply as consumers but as citizens. On issues like social care and pensions, issues of poverty and social mobility, I believe this politics of the common good has the power to motivate people to act.”
I agree with Ed, well, the old Ed.
I think we need to move beyond that shallow politics of ‘now’ more than ever before because the challenges we face are bigger than they have ever been and not simply fixed by motivating people to vote on self-interest; sexism, the future of politics, climate change, care and pensions – the economy.
Unfortunately today’s prescription from Ed is another dose of the status quo.
Getting beyond the Politics of Now is possible, but not like this
Ed says that he doesn’t like photo ops, but that he’ll try his best at them, if that’s what people want.
Ed says people rate consistency and see who you’re willing to stand up to as a marker for trust and leadership. That's the same Ed Miliband that in the same speech offered a grovelling apology for a photo opportunity in Rupert Murdoch’s The Sun newspaper, after he had stood up to them? – of course.
Ed said that cynicism was the problem we faced. Well I apologise if I’m being cynical – but I don’t think some comforting words about Ed’s adversity over those who pull him down because of a bacon sandwich is going to change politics for the better.
I don’t think that the solution to 'restoring' trust in politics is talking to people in a slightly different way about slightly different things.
I don’t think people should be happy that a load of MPs that they, the electorate, apparently ‘kicked out’ in 2010 will return in 10 months time to be as lazy as they were last time just because the Lib Dem vote has collapsed in swing marginals.
I don’t think we should be happy that we can’t hold MPs to account until 2020 on the promises they make in 2015.
I don’t think that we should be okay with the fact that millions of people don’t vote, can’t vote or won’t vote.
We have to do things differently. And of course it’s not about bacon sandwiches, but neither is it about watching a lecture from a former professor of Harvard talk about it as if not being able to eat one in public is some sort of injustice.
Tell me now that the Labour Party is interested in talking beyond the ‘politics of now’ and I’ll cut out my cynicism.
We have a ballooning national debt.
International crises across the world.
An electorate totally disinterested in the politicians that we hope will take a stand and a lead to tackle these enormous challenges we face.
But quite frankly we’re more interested in calling Ed the future, the man who stood up to Murdoch; the man who redefined leadership.
And if we’re not, well then we’re saying that his brother – who looks like him, sounds like him and practically had the same policies as him – would have been all those things instead.
Oxford can clearly only get you so far.
Give me strength.