I was born into the progressive Guardianista middle class. My parents hid Vietnam draft dodgers in the seventies, waved CND placards in the eighties and became ardent Blairites in the nineties. The long dark night of the 1980s must have been harder for them because they knew they were in a minority. Thatcher won three decisive election victories and there were clearly people who loved Thatcher and thought that she was doing the right thing.
The National Government shares Thatcher’s monetarist approach and ideological thrust but not the political mandate. Cameron’s coalition was lashed together in four days and at the last minute when it became clear that he had failed to win an outright majority against a shattered, third-term administration led by a bumbling sociopath at a time of almost unprecedented crisis. The Conservative Party never hesitates to overthrow its leaders if they don’t deliver – that’s why it has been such a success in British politics – and Cameron’s inner circle went into coalition talks on a desperate mission to get him the premiership, at whatever cost. Cameron’s appeal to the Liberal Democrats was basically ‘Dear Nick. I have been locked in a small room with a revolver and a glass of Bell’s. Please prop up my government. I am begging you.’ An anonymous Tory told the Guardian that the priority was ‘Operation Save Dave’: ‘All that matters is getting David into No 10. Then we can work out what we need to do.’
People tend to underestimate Cameron – both his strengths and his ideological dark side – and you would hardly believe this desperation could exist in the relaxed and confident sharpshooter who leans on the dispatch box every midday Wednesday. The coalition government rests on a electoral sandcastle yet it acts as if its ministers were carried into Whitehall on the shoulders of cheering crowds. On the back of Cameron’s 36% vote share he is ploughing ahead with dramatic changes to education, the NHS, welfare, defence, policing, everything. (Contrast this with Tony Blair, who won a landslide in ’97 yet in his first term was cautious to the point of rupture.) Predictably, most of the changes are spending reductions. Everything is justified with the foul lie that there is no alternative to swift and deep cuts. The rest of us must repent for the sins of the elite, who like the Buchanans in the Great Gatsby, ‘smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness, or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.’
Labour’s response to all this has been to spend four months fucking around with a leadership contest, and now, apparently, we are going to spend more months fucking around with a policy review. In a big hyped speech Miliband announced ’22 policy inquiries’ and ‘the formation of a series of working groups, chaired by shadow cabinet ministers, intended to lay the ground for a new policy programme to take Labour into the next general election.’ Sorry, Ed, but do we really have time for all this shit? Have we really earned the luxury of the blank page?
Here’s what Uncle Eddie should be asking at PMQs. Do you think your approach to cutting the deficit is wise considering that Ireland destroyed itself by doing exactly the same thing in 2006? Why doesn’t your Chancellor, who has no experience of business, commerce or finance, listen to the serious economists who say his plans will end in disaster? In the light of research showing that you could avoid spending cuts by taxing the richest 1,000, do you think that it is fair to sacrifice the livelihoods and lives of millions of people because of mistakes made by your friends in the City? You insist that the working class and middle class should lose public services and quality of life. Why should they? What gives you the right to do this? Who do you think you are? How do you look in the mirror in the morning, and sleep at night?
Seven months into the National Government’s first term we are seeing riots, demonstrations and occupations. Consider that the real pain of Gideonomics won’t hit until January when the VAT hike comes in. Students breaking into CCHQ could then be the least of Cameron’s problems. We are seeing the dawn of a new, intelligent, creative force in political protest. On Friday in several different cities activists from UK Uncut chanted ‘We are the tax enforcement society’ as they closed flagship stores of revenue-dodging billionaire Philip Green. There has never been such acute awareness of the distribution of wealth and power. The debate is happening, but it’s not happening in Parliament.
Government strategy against Ed Miliband is the same as it was against Labour leaders of the 1980s, to link him with leftwing disorder or at least make him deny that there’s a link. Miliband knows this and by manouvreing around the charge he is making himself look ridiculous. On a recent student demo, Miliband said that ‘I said I was going to talk to them at some point, I was tempted to go out and talk to them.’ Why didn’t you? ‘I think I was doing something else at the time, actually.’ Cameron, a brilliant debater, capitalised on this at PMQs: ‘At least the Deputy Prime Minister can make up his mind whether to join a demo or not – the Leader of the Opposition cannot even decide whether to sit on the fence.’
Thing is, Miliband will gain nothing by distancing himself. You can’t appease the right. They are never satisfied. Miliband should go on the attack and throw his weight behind the protestors. These aren’t the sectarian bigots of the STWC. They are the ‘squeezed middle’ he keeps going on about. They are people with jobs and relationships and needs and aspirations. And in the end, they may not need him.
Update: Having said that…