by Jonathan Todd
On Saturday, I met a friend for coffee and took my son swimming. Normal life, that simple, that complicated. Labour’s Spring Rally came in-between. This made the coffee and swim seem Damascus living: normal life accompanied by artillery’s distant thud.
There is not one nation but two Britain’s. The Britain of my coffee and swim. The Britain of the rally. Here the artillery is loud. War has been waged against the country by the government . “Britain can’t afford another five years of Tory government,” Shaun Dooley, the actor and one of Ed Miliband’s warm-up acts, implored.
“If we go on at this rate, the nation must be ruined,” Adam Smith was told by a student following a reversal for British troops in the American revolution. “There’s a great deal of ruin in a nation,” retorted Smith. It would take more than a prime minister as second rate as David Cameron to ruin us.
In rally Britain, however, all is at stake. We might be ruined. Or milk and honey might flow. A country where the next generation can do better than the last. Where the NHS has time to care. And working families have higher living standards.
Miliband is an ideas man. Like his father. And some of his closest advisers. Riffs of ideas emanate from Labour’s pledge card, unveiled at the rally. But people struggle with abstract ideas. As the Conservatives found with the Big Society.
There was nothing abstract about Labour’s 1997 pledge card. It was a retail offer to key voters with funding mechanisms attached. While such offers can be widely believed, mass belief can also be secured by other mechanisms.
People can believe in people who believe in ideas. More often than they believe in abstract ideas. They believe, for example, in the idea of Gandhi more than they believe in nonviolent civil disobedience and certainly more than they believe in the reality of Gandhi’s sometimes controversial life. It is not that man who now has a Parliament Square statute. It is the idea of him.
There is a statue of Harry Leslie Smith in Parliament Square in rally Britain. It is there to underscore the idea that the Tories exist to take us back to the 1930s. “Do you see,” the rally’s compère asked Smith, “any parallels between then and now?” As if what we were supposed to feel wasn’t already obvious.
But – like an advert for Barclays Digital Eagles – no emotional lever is too obvious to not be pulled in rally Britain. Jermain Jackman – “2014 winner of The Voice and proud Labour member”, we were told – began things with music. Ed Balls, in the front row, was quickest to his feet with applause after his songs. In addition to Dooley, Jackson and Smith, we heard from Norman Pickavance, a former HR director at Morrisons, who reviewed zero hours contracts for Miliband (and found them to be bad); a graduate who claimed her employment prospects are better in war torn Ukraine than in the UK (which is sad – if a little hard to believe); a 19 year-old diabetic with cystic fibrosis who’d also had a double lung transplant and delays in NHS treatment (which is really very sad indeed); a cleaner who’d benefitted from Birmingham’s Labour council paying her the living wage (which is great – but not quite on the pledge card); and Simon Franks, a businessman and “proud Labour member” – the repeated emphasis on proud verging suspicious – who offered EU views out of kilter with those of the British Chamber of Commerce.
The vibe veered into the revivalist. The language resolutely state socialist. The cliché tombola was powered up like a Labour Party PPC selection. But selections are about preaching to the converted. General elections are about reaching beyond.
After watching Miliband in December give the speech that launched his first pledge, I had more confidence that he would seek to do this than I did coming away from the rally. That December speech, which saw Miliband more fluent in the language of fiscal credibility than he has been before or since, came after the Autumn Statement, which has allowed Miliband to repeatedly argue that George Osborne plans “to cut the state back to the size it was in the 1930s, before we had the NHS”. In rally Britain, evidence to justify Smith’s statute. Elsewhere, notwithstanding the tremendous growth in GDP since the 1930s, an Osborne error that he’ll likely find means of correcting in this week’s Budget.
With this rug pulled from beneath us, we might wonder upon what the Labour campaign will stand. Not tailored political retail but abstract ideas. Minus a Gandhi for these ideas: a believer in them likely to compel mass support. As the electorate faces this, there is a greater probability than there should be that what appears ruin to rally Britain will be chosen.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut