Why on earth would anyone seek the leadership of a political party in Britain? Today, Ed Miliband made his maiden speech as the new Labour leader (though not, of course, as the New Labour leader) having just emerged from sibling rivalry on a grand scale. Immediately he is beset by aggravation from all sides, from the fatuous (Red Ed, well dealt with in his speech, I thought) to the serious (his green credentials already under forensic scrutiny from Caroline Lucas.)
The policy questions exemplified by the latter are of course proper and important. If a politician doesn’t want to become embroiled in policy debate, then what could possibly be the point of him or her? No, it’s not the policy aspect of Ed Miliband’s speech that interests me today. There are others more willing, and doubtless much more qualified, than me who will happily point out the inconsistencies, the blind spots, the impossibilities, and the horse-trading that a textual analysis will most certainly reveal. Rather, it’s the other stuff that I want to concentrate on: the jokes, the personal revelations, the stall chock-full of values, and all the other paraphernalia that operates as a sort of meta-physics of political discourse. These are universally unpleasant it seems to me, and serve more than almost anything else to corrode the proper relationship between the electorate and the political class. The expenses scandal was of course a defining moment in the headlong fall from grace of that entire class, but I doubt that alone accounts for the public opprobrium that politicians now have to struggle against.
I can’t even begin to disentangle cause and effect, so I won’t try. But our politics have descended into a doleful equilibrium between, on the one hand, politicians forever obsessing about how they appear to the public, how they can avoid the catastrophic PR gaffe, how they can manipulate the electorate into seeing them as this kind of person or that regardless of the kind of person they actually are; whilst on the other, the electorate are ever-willing to apply tests of consistency and morality that not one in a thousand of them could pass themselves. Whilst it’s fashionable to blame the collective media for this parlous state of affairs, that is at best a simplification: but it’s true that the media is certainly not providing any kind of cure and rather acts as the Unholy Ghost of this malign trinity.
To give but two examples. Possibly the most distasteful and abhorrent political happening of recent times was Gordon Brown’s tearful interview with Piers Morgan, when he talked about the loss of his baby daughter. Not the tears themselves – entirely natural and evidently sincere, but the appalling notion that somehow this show of emotion was necessary for political success. What are we doing to our politicians when we require this kind of gladiatorial combat? Why should anyone have to submit to it? Gordon Brown, whatever one’s views about his tenure as Prime Minister, never deserved this humiliation. It’s not that crying is in itself humiliating: but being obliged to cry on someone else’s orders and for some tangential gain is.
The second example, the infamous bigot-gate during the general election campaign, is in a way the mirror image. Tears for his dead daughter were supposed to show Gordon Brown as human, touchy-feely, but all it did was embarrass us and him. We all knew that he was not naturally touchy-feely. By contrast, bigot-gate showed him as naturally irascible and frustrated, and made me for one warm to him as never before. Such irony: the unreal Gordon was fêted whilst the real Gordon was vilified.
And now Ed Miliband finds himself on this same conveyor belt. He cannot be himself. He must be the generous brother, full of sentimental attachment for the sibling he has just defeated. He must be the grateful child of Nazi-scarred parents. He must be the haughty dis-owner of the unions, whose members have supported him, for fear of that ridiculous Red Ed tag. He must be all manner of fabricated, nuanced things that he is not. Or that he may be. The problem with this politics is that we simply no longer know what to believe.