DJ Taylor: Hang on, Mr Miliband, I've got a great idea

Why Labour should risk an audacious plan, and call for the redistribution of wealth. Plus, in defence of our ignorant youth
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The question of how to behave in opposition has been off the Labour Party's agenda for many years. Back in the days of early Thatcherism, for all those siren voices from the constituency parties advocating a collectivist state, the eventual drift had to be rightward, on the grounds that this was the only tactic capable of gaining the party votes. Thirty years later, with by no means all of the ideological differences that separate right and left settled in the right's favour, and in the presence of a government that seems determined to reinforce social divides, the smart money would seem to be on a shift to the left.

Or perhaps not. Certainly members of the commentariat who examined this topic in the wake of the Budget counselled caution. In particular it was thought that even the slightest nod in the direction of a redistributive economic policy would frighten off the middle classes – the only interest group that really matters in British politics these days – for another generation. On the other hand, this advice, which Ed Miliband seems disposed to accept, leaves him with so little room for manoeuvre that you wonder why he doesn't strike out on a line of his own and damn the consequences.

But how can he pursue something that looks even vaguely like social justice without finding himself written off as a lefty ingrate anxious to rob Middle England of some of its hard-won advantages? One way to do this might be to persuade Lower Middle England that its interests are much better served by Labour than by a Conservative Party whose real enthusiasm is reserved for the social and economic groups a rung or two higher up the ladder or a Liberal Democrat Party that increasingly resembles an organ-grinder's monkey. Another would be to come up with a revenue-raising scheme designed to detach comfortably off "ordinary" people from the less comfortably off.

In a London Review of Books essay castigating the Lib Dems for their spinelessness, the historian Ross McKibbin notes that "were they really serious" about taxing the rich, the Lib Dems "might have proposed the addition of two or three more bands to council tax and a revaluation of house property in England". Given that the 20-year-old rateable system for domestic property bears no relation to contemporary values, this reform is long overdue. It would have the right-wing columnists gnashing their teeth, but what, even this early in the 2015 electoral game, has Mr Miliband got to lose?

On the train to London, I listened to an elderly gentleman, Daily Mail all a-quiver between his fists, lamenting the results of a survey that catalogued the British teenager's ignorance of geography. While large numbers of the nation's youth had visited France and Spain, few of them could locate these destinations on a map. Worse, only a tiny percentage could find their way around that increasingly exotic accessory to foreign travel, the atlas.

Shocking as these deficiencies are, it is difficult not to feel that certain mitigating factors lie to hand. One is that the British have always been distinguished by their lack of geographical nous: "There's a lot of good writing coming out of Africa these days" an eminent literary critic remarked some years ago of the Guyanese novelist Roy Heath. Another is that many other nationalities seem to be even worse informed. The novelist Roger (RJ) Ellory once astonished a literary festival audience with an account of a trip he had taken to the Louisiana border with a Channel 4 film crew. "You ain't from these parts, is you?" an enquiring local amiably deposed.

There followed a lengthy catechism designed to establish the party's exact provenance. Were they, the local wondered, "Czechoslovak people?" (Czechoslovakia, by this time, was a decade and a half dismembered.) If not, were they then "Jew people?" In the end Ellory gave in and said he came from Birmingham. This produced a raised eye at the long distance he had plainly had to travel – Birmingham (Alabama) being a good 45-minute drive away.

The standard critical line when confronted with a BBC archive programme is to shake one's head over how much better they did things in the Golden Age of television. Watching the excellent BBC4 series Talk – a collection of interviews from the early 1950s to the late 1970s – which came to a close last week, I wasn't so sure. Naturally there were great beasts stalking the studios – Michael Parkinson, for example, whether hobnobbing with Muhammad Ali or warily reconnoitring the take-no-prisoners demeanour of Lauren Bacall, had his moments, while Face to Face's compere John Freeman offered a master class in genteel remorselessness.

All the same, if Alan Whicker's cheesy deference very soon began to pale, then some of the film-star profiles were unbelievably craven in their obsequiousness. I was particularly struck by a Picture Parade sit-down with Joan Crawford from 1955 in which the interviewer clasped his idol's hand with such fervour and for so long as to practically constitute harassment. That Ms Crawford, here characterised as the shyest violet in Hollywood – had consented to the interview was thought to be a matter for wonder and congratulation. The subject talked about her love for young people for a bit – her interlocutor conveying by his expression that another commandment had come down from Sinai – and a moist-eyed protégée was brought on for a hug, after which the two of them were waved off with a bunch of flowers each. There might be something to be said for Graham Norton after all.

The week's most jaw-dropping statement came from West Ham United Football Club CEO Karren Brady. Welcoming the Barnet manager Lawrie Sanchez's claim that the time might soon be ripe for a female Premier League "gaffer", Ms Brady offered the sage advice that the first job of any incoming executive was to get rid of sexism in the workplace. And how, you felt like asking, had Ms Brady set about extirpating sexism when she toiled as a director on the Sport newspaper empire – a mission that could only have been accomplished by closing down the organisation? And what exactly is her view of her current employers, the pornographers David Sullivan and David Gold, whose commercial empires, it might be argued, have been built on the exploitation of women, and one of whom served a 10-week prison sentence for living off immoral earnings? But then, no doubt Don Corleone was first in line with his annual subscription to the RSPCA.

Comments