DJ Taylor: Miliband ill at ease with union brothers

Labour leader lacks affinity with his funders, Wisbech lacks affinity with Norfolk, and apologies for some doggy doggerel

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To watch Ed Miliband address the TUC Conference, and to watch the reaction of the delegates as he did so, was to be reminded of the enormous gaps that separate certain parts of our society from their representatives. Several of the TUC’s finest had already graced the rostrum. By and large they are big, burly, middle-aged blokes with peevish expressions who would not look out of place at the Stretford End or queuing up for half-time pies at St James’ Park. Doing his fraternal duty before the workers – spruce, polished, eager-eyed and trying desperately to keep the gentility out of his voice – Mr Miliband looks even younger than he really is.

Much as one sympathises with Mr Miliband, who would clearly have preferred to be somewhere else, one could sympathise even more with

his increasingly stony-faced onlookers. Here was our Ed, the smart kid wafted into the political firmament on a cloud of union votes, and now he had the cheek to say that the summer’s industrial unrest had been a mistake. The ingratitude of it.

When was the last time a Labour leader had any affinity with a TUC audience? James Callaghan, a former trade union official, certainly did, and so, in their different ways, did Michael Foot and John Smith. Neil Kinnock was a miner’s son, even if he played a ringside role in the miners’ downfall.

No, it was Tony Blair who definitively broke that link: not because he actively disliked trade unions, but because they were largely irrelevant to the New Labour project. The consequence of this, 15 years down the line, is what might be called the Miliband dilemma: having to be polite to a constituency whose influence over your party’s affairs you would dearly like to see diminished, and whose every sabre rattle on the subject of strikes is liable to lose you another few thousand middle-class votes.

Were I a trade union leader I would already be getting fed up with Mr Miliband and his calls for the movement to “change” on the grounds that no politician in the past 20 years has shown the slightest interest in my opinion on anything. Were I Mr Miliband, I should be more fed up still, on the grounds that my room for political manoeuvre is limited enough as it is.





Norfolk’s border guards





Here in East Anglia a corking row has broken out over the Boundary Commission’s proposals for the area’s parliamentary seats. It is not that the number of Norfolk constituencies is going to be reduced, merely that there are plans to redevelop the existing South-West Norfolk division into an entity called “Wisbech and Downham Market”.

Wisbech, alas, is over the border in Cambridgeshire and the scheme has not gone down well. “A ridiculous situation organised by people who have no idea about the history or geography of this area,” a Downham Market councillor complained. “Both areas have different needs,” another local observed, while a Downham Market pensioner protested that he was “a Norfolk boy” rather than a fenman.

Given how multicultural, interconnected and geographically liberated modern life is always cracked up to be, this kind of vigilant local patriotism can sometimes come as a shock. Perhaps, in mitigation, it is more common in remoter areas where the sense of being out on a limb at the end of the railway line provokes a greater sense of solidarity. Certainly one rarely hears people say “I’m from Surrey” with quite the same pride as they confess to hailing from, say, Cumbria. My father, reaching the Suffolk border at Beccles in the family car, used quite seriously to encourage his children to take their last breath of clean air. Mysteriously – or not so mysteriously – these attitudes endure. I was watching Norwich City not long back when an opposition substitute appeared on the pitch. For half an hour every move he made produced a fusillade of jeers. It turned out that at some remote point in time our man had played perhaps half-a-dozen games for Ipswich Town. This fact was known to and unforgiven by perhaps 60 per cent of the crowd.





Wanting to say sorry





According to a new survey “Bashful Brits” say sorry an average of eight times a day. Worse, as many as one in eight of us are reckoned to apologise 20 times a day, frequently for sins we have not committed. Apology, it turns out, is nothing more than a mark of social nervousness, a symbol of our dislike of confrontation. You suspect that a similar role in our national life is played by the words “thank you”. Reading Martin Amis’s novel Success (inset above) for the first time some years ago, I felt a terrific sense of confraternity with its yob character, Terry Service, who while collecting his morning coffee from the takeaway says “thank you” five times (“thank you for letting me in, thank you for acknowledging my presence, thank you for taking my order, thank you for taking my money, thank you for giving me change”) and on one occasion warmly congratulates a vending machine on the concourse at Paddington station.

Twentieth century social commentators, from George Orwell down, often remark on the innate gentleness of the British attitude to life. This is sometimes contrasted with the belligerence of the early-Victorian era, when parliamentary candidates could be horse-whipped on town hall steps and the denizens of a gentlemen’s club breakfast room were quite likely to come to blows over whose turn it was to read The Times. When did bashfulness set in? Somehow this seems quite as vital an aspect of recent English history as the causes of the the First World War or the retreat from the gold standard.





Twittering together





The latest Twitter trend, I discovered from my wife, is for something called “celebrity canines”. Examples quoted, some of which presumably cost their originators a great deal of time and effort, include “Spaniel Day-Lewis”, “Kennel Dog-Leash” (which must be something to do with Kenny Dalglish), and – no bar on bad taste here – “Amy Whinehouse”. Having this facility at your fingertips is, no doubt, all very democratic and empowering. Cynics, on the other hand, might think it bore some faint relation to the television ads for the new breed of iPhone. These seem expressly designed to stress the fact that certain forms of technology and social media are neither liberating nor empowering, but simply coercive: that they reduce the individual’s capacity for thought by channelling it into a series of pre-arranged formulae, and peddle the idea of choice while secretly instilling a dreary uniformity. Having said that, 8 out of 10 to whoever came up with “Michael Dachshund”.

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