Friday 1 October 2010
Johann Hari: Ed, prepare for the fight of your life
The claim that he will 'abandon the middle-class' is the polar opposite of the truth. His politics are about knowing who the real middle-class are, and what they need
Ed Miliband is being hit by a tsunami of lies and smears that is going to try to wash him away every day he leads the Labour Party. It happens to anybody who tries – however mildly and modestly, as he does – to take on the vested interests of the super-rich in defence of the rest of the population. If his message succeeds with the public, it will only get worse.
An hour after he was elected, I saw a neat metaphor for the sudden transition from a (literally) fraternal Labour leadership election to the aggression of national politics. Miliband walked out of the Midland Hotel and tried to stride to a meeting of his celebrating campaign team. Suddenly a swarm of camera crews kettled him in the street, yelling questions and making it impossible for him to move. His sweet young press team looked a little thrown, and asked the camera crews to let him pass. The camera crews shoved them aside and spat: "Fuck you." Those two words summarize his press coverage so far.
Ed Miliband's analysis of where Labour went wrong, and how to put it right, is broadly correct. The right-wing press, and many Blairites, keep claiming he will "abandon the middle class". This is the polar opposite of the truth. His politics are about understanding who Britain's real middle class are, and what they need. The median wage in Britain last year was £20,800. If you take home more than £40,000 a year, you are in the richest 10 per cent.
This, the real middle of British society, is stressed and close to panic. They can't get bank loans for their small businesses. They are worried they'll be made redundant, or their employer will go bust. They are working twice as hard just to stand still, so they hardly see their kids. They know when they grow up their children won't get mortgages, and won't get a university education without crippling debt. They are in debt themselves. They are incredibly vulnerable to the double-dip recession the Coalition's policies are making more likely, and to the looming hammer-blow to public services they can't afford to opt out of. The polls show the people they blame most for doing all this to them are the bankers and the super-rich. They're right.
The idea that Labour's response to all this should have been to continue to enthusiastically cosset the interests of the rich, and ignore the public rage, is bizarre. Yet this is the position of the defeated Blairites. I went to the Progress rally, which had morphed into a wake for David Miliband and a Madame Tussauds of unmodern "modernisers". More than a dozen speakers stood up and directed their anger solely in one direction – towards welfare recipients and immigrants. Now, I too believe welfare recipients should be required to work (and we should create jobs for them if there are none). I too believe that when immigration is too high, it depresses the wages of people at the bottom of society. These are real issues. But they are literally all the Blairites have left to talk about, in the nastiest possible tone.
Not a single other policy area, or thought, or philosophy, was mentioned. Not one. The idea of agreeing with the public and directing anger upwards to the people who actually caused this crisis was mentioned only to warn that this would be "irresponsible" and "threatening".
David Miliband's snapping at Harriet Harman underscored why the party made the right choice. He was furious at her for clapping a repudiation of the Iraq war, because she voted for it at the time. Think about what that reveals.
He thinks once you have taken a public position, it is disgusting to change it – no matter how catastrophic it turned out to be. (A million deaths in the name of Weapons of Mass Destruction that didn't exist is a catastrophe by any standard.) Imagine if he had been leading Labour with that view for the next four years. And, please, spare me the weepy political obituaries. This is a man who, as Foreign Secretary, fought hard to cover up MI5's role in the torture of British residents abroad. I'll save my tears for the people who were attacked with drills and electric cattle prods, while he scrambled to keep it classified.
Ed is right to judge that the mood of Middle England is much more receptive to populist proposals than to Blairite sucking-up to the super-rich or Cameroon whipping of the poor. He's already proposed some good ideas. He wants to pressure companies through the tax system to pay a living wage, a third higher than the minimum wage. He wants to abolish student debt and replace it with a graduate tax paid only when you are wealthy enough to do it.
Some other excellent proposals are bubbling up from the people around him. The Labour MP David Lammy has proposed a Land Tax as a way of making the wealthy pay a much fairer share. Land inequality is vastly higher even than income inequality. Today, 0.6 per cent of the British population owns 69 per cent of the land – and they are mostly the same families who owned it in the 19th century. Just 103 people own 30 per cent of the country.
This isn't productive wealth: it's overwhelmingly unearned and useless, so there is no reduction in economic activity if we go after it. And it can't be moved abroad. A rich Brit can flit to Monaco for long enough to avoid taxes, but he can't take the great lumps of the English countryside that he owns with him. Here's a popular way to pay to protect the universal welfare state so badly needed by Middle England.But if Miliband is serious about reducing inequality, he will incur the wrath of the super-rich and their winged monkeys who dominate our media. This isn't going to be a seminar: it's going to be a knife fight. They won't fight him on the issues, where his positions are broadly popular. They will simply try to make him look ridiculous or malign through distortion. Yet the print media in particular – by far the most biased source of news – isn't the force it was, and it's easier than ever to communicate over their heads. He will, however, have to show much stricter discipline in communicating a clear message about the "squeezed middle" than he has in his rambling interviews over the past week.
On the deficit, he needs to be Ballsy – in both senses. The right claims that in order to be "credible", he needs to commit to a strict programme of deficit-slashing. But everything we have learned from the last Great Depression tells us that, if things get worse, the only way out of mass unemployment will be a big fiscal jump-start to the economy, funded by taking out more government debt in the short term. He mustn't rule out being Franklin Roosevelt and instead commit to being Herbert Hoover, just to appease the very people whose macho platitudes caused this funk in the first place.
Ed Miliband is going to face an extremely difficult fight against the vested interests – and to get through it, he should think back to a figure from his childhood. No, not his father, the revolutionary Ralph Miliband. Ed used to skive off from dinners with him and other socialist thinkers to watch Dallas. He's going to need some of the granite spirit of J R Ewing. When his control of Ewing Oil was threatened, J R growled to his wife Sue Ellen: "Anything worth having is worth fighting for – all the way." Miliband's policies are worth having. But he is going to have to fight for them – all the way.
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