DJ Taylor: Can Ed turn the political tide?

Labour has to admit that things can only get worse; a secularist onslaught; the self-interested approach to Libya

With a 10-month-old coalition government papering over the cracks in its ideological façade, and the cuts making their presence felt on an almost daily basis, no one could say that British politics lacked drama.

What it does lack, on the other hand, is a sense of realism. To be sure, the Justice Secretary, Kenneth Clarke, has warned that Middle England may not realise the implications of this new-found austerity, and the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, has made ominous remarks about living standards, but the general feeling around the cabinet table seems to be that if we keep our heads down for a year or two, a path may very soon open up through the mire to the sunlit uplands beyond.

In this context, the speech by Ed Miliband at last Monday's launch of the Commission on Living Standards was a missed chance. According to his analysis, despite "advances" under Labour, the economy was "not delivering" for middle earners. While those at the top had continued to do well, "middle earners are no longer guaranteed to share in our nation's success". Such was the harm that the coalition's policies could wreak on the 11 million people in this socio-economic bracket that families with an annual income of £44,000 "could no longer consider themselves rich".

You can sympathise with Mr Miliband's dilemma. No election can be won without the support of the Daily Mail-reading middle class; living standards are far more important than moral salubrity or social justice; and the interests of the most influential part of the electorate have to be seen to be fought for. But it would be nice if a politician could bring himself to admit that one likely consequence of the next decade is that the endless "growth" which functions as the lode-star of all modern politics is no longer sustainable. It would be even nicer if one particular politician could use this understanding to revive a principle to which every pre-Blair Labour government used at least marginally to adhere to: the idea that, in times of economic hardship, you should redistribute some of the wealth of those best able to withstand it to the much larger part of society that can barely make ends meet.

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It was a busy week for the burgeoning forces of secularism. First we had a spokesperson from the British Humanist Association complaining about the census box that solicits details of religious affiliation, on the grounds that non-church-goers may feel "pressured" into describing themselves as Christians. Then we had the National Secular Society making dark noises about the cost of employing hospital chaplains, the implication being that the £29m apparently spent on this service could be put to better use.

As ever in these spirited interventions, it was difficult to see exactly what point was being made. Why shouldn't someone who never sets foot in a place of worship but still considers himself vestigially attached to the idea of "faith" make this preference felt on a census form? It probably has the edge on declaring yourself a Jedi Knight. As for hospital chaplains, to whose clinical value several doctors subsequently lined up to testify, it could be argued that at a time when the NHS has been condemned for its failure to show compassion, their empathising presence is just what the gravely ill need at their bedsides.

The spectacle of a "humanist" gnashing his teeth over the loaf of bread handed out to the famine victim because it comes courtesy of a smiling nun is one of the odder paradoxes of modern life. Meanwhile, the question of what to do with the early 21st century's vast reservoir of displaced religious sensibility is one that no secularist has ever got round to answering. It is certainly not going to be solved by feeble complaints about the census.

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From west Norfolk comes a wonderful example of the dark arts of the public relations industry. A company with the rather odd-sounding name of Cory Wheelabrator has been agitating to construct a waste incinerator at Saddlebow, near King's Lynn. Public opinion is – naturally – deeply opposed, and West Norfolk council decided to stage a referendum. Seventy thousand ballot papers were sent to local residents, of whom 65,516 (93 per cent) were found to have registered a "no" vote.

Minutes before the result was declared, Cory, abetted by its PR agency PPS, released the findings of its own survey. This claimed that while 63 per cent of the people of Lynn were against the incinerator, 65 per cent of the county as a whole was in favour. Some of the 1,571 people surveyed alleged that the questions asked were one-sided. A briefing document obtained by the Eastern Daily Press quoted PPS's Paul Kelly to the effect that the referendum had "complicated" his PR strategy "for the simple reason that it cuts across the normal consultation process ..." West Norfolk's leader, Nick Daubney, is expected to address the county council cabinet about the issue tomorrow.

As an advocate of local democracy, I am, of course, appalled by this exercise in rank subterfuge. As an ex-PR man, on the other hand, I felt a keen tremor of nostalgia. It was all uncannily reminiscent of the proposed merger between two City accountancy firms, for which I contrived six equally enthusiastic press releases, each based on a possible outcome of the partners' vote, before departing on holiday; or the job interview I once attended with a soon-to-be unseated Tory MP who was setting up his own PR agency, where the brief seemed to consist of encouraging the sale of powdered baby milk to African villagers. No doubt about it, I concluded, Mr Kelly is a master of his craft.

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It was difficult to find much light relief in the events unfolding in Libya, but happily the Daily Express maintains its capacity to reduce the newsstand browser to peals of helpless laughter. The Express, in case you didn't know, extends a single interpretative prism to foreign affairs: how will this hit the Middle English wallet? Thus on the day that protests erupted in Benghazi, its front page was speculating that the price of petrol could hit £6 a gallon. Shortly afterwards it weighed in with the shocking thought that the Libyan uprising may lead to a 40 per cent increase in the cost of aeroplane fuel and make it more expensive to go on holiday.

Curiously, the people for whom one feels the greatest sympathy are the Daily Express's readers. It must be rather galling to know that the proprietor of the newspaper you buy assumes that you are a selfishly blinkered xenophobe more interested in the cost of petrol than the sight of ordinary people being slaughtered in the pursuit of freedoms which you take for granted. So galling, in fact, that you wonder why they don't buy something else.

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