Forget what Ed Milliband says – he will learn nothing from Bradford. But then, neither will anyone else – unless we reform the relationship between money and politics
It is the automated response to every political setback – ‘we will learn lessons’. Yet something said so easily is bound to raise doubts; what lessons did you learn last time and if those were learned is this a completely different lesson? How many lessons can you learn?
Labour in London has been caught with a consistent problem for years. Those that strategise in the party do not seem to have a very clear concept of how to reconcile its two roles. One of those roles is as the political party which represents working people. The other role is to be a ‘credible party of government’. The difficulty is that ‘credible party of government’ is in fact a euphemism for ‘political party which represents the interests of the elite’. So it is that maximising GDP but not income is the goal for a ‘credible’ government. And thus the interests of the public are placed behind those of the City of London (on the basis that the former can emerge only from the success of the latter).
I don’t particularly blame Ed Milliband for this. In fact, it would be quite remarkable in the context of contemporary politics if Ed was able to see what was going on. Ed works in London, and in particular in Westminster. Westminster is a bit like the Truman Show – unseen hands carefully manage and manipulate the very fabric of the streets in such a way as to make the residents believe that the world is actually like this. They find reasons to sweep protesters off the streets (security – always security) and ensure adequate parking for visiting CEOs. The effect even of this simple action is immense – imagine the difference in world view between people who see all-conquering CEOs gliding effortlessly through the streets outside your window with not a challenge to be seen and people who see CEOs sheltered in bulletproof limos as angry, ordinary people pelt them with eggs. One group comes to see CEOs as almost other-worldly angelic figures, the other will view them more like ogres beset by angry villagers tired of the pillaging.
Westminster is a bubble, and not a bubble of accident. Most things are carefully planned to make the people inside the bubble believe this is the real world, that it is reflective of Britain as a whole. If politicians venture any sort of view that is out of kilter with this manufactured bubble then hit squads are parachuted in to fix the situation. Both Cameron and Milliband have tried to express a little of the anger of the wider public at corporations; both were rapidly scolded by the CBI and the many other agents of bubble maintenance. So they didn’t do it again.
I worked in Westminster for a while. My experience was that everyone there considered everyone elsewhere to be ‘out of the loop’. By which they meant that those not in their bubble didn’t really understand the world. They therefore had only two purposes – to be used or to be managed. And this is why nothing will change – because the go-to response to set back is management. I would expect that what Labour has spent the weekend doing is working out how to manage the message resulting from the Bradford result. (I know, I used to do this sort of thing. Someone will have opened with ‘can we risk the race explanation or is that too risky?’. It will have run on until someone could make doing nothing substantive sound like a plausible response.)
A political setback is not a source of learning but a cause for excuses and explanation. Politicians can say whatever they like but inside the bubble they still fundamentally believe that Bradford was wrong to reject elite politics. ‘We realise they are angry but they just don’t understand that anything that interferes with big corporations is just impractical. If only we could make them understand that City regulation is just not feasible.’
But there is a simple response – burst the bubble, or at least widen it. The ease with which corporate lobbyists can manufacture a political environment in their own image is due to complete lack of any checks and balances. If you have the money, all things become possible in politics. So we need to stop the money and help change the political environment. So it is to be hoped that every Scottish politician will support the principle of Neil Findlay’s Bill on lobbying transparency. This can’t be allowed to be a party political issue.
And then I’d go further. It is not enough that money should be limited in how much it can set the agenda; politicians must also be prevented from recreating their own assumptions about ‘what matters’ which is a legacy of the many years of the influence of money. There should be much more explicit guidance on what ‘balance’ in parliamentary work means. If every inquiry is to be packed with the same corporate mouthpieces and every evidence session dominated by one political viewpoint, of course everyone will come away seeing consensus instead of piles of filthy cash.
Nothing will every really change in the bubble. It is the bubble we need to change.