Ed Miliband is not Sarah Palin

by Dan Hodges

The tea party. Not a party as such, but a movement. A reaction. Forged in response to a seismic defeat.

They look mainly inward. Purists. Believers. Compromise is dangerous. It led to electoral catastrophe. Their politics is confident. Aggressive. Its practitioners alert to betrayal.

They eschew centralisation. They are well organised, yes. But their structures are pluralistic. They believe in grassroots ownership. Distributed leadership.

This creates problems. Indiscipline. Extremists have infiltrated the organisation. Mainstream politicians who do not fully embrace their ideology have been challenged. Members of the same party have, for reasons of personal expediency, turned on their own. The old political hierarchies are unwilling, or unable, to intervene.

They do not have opponents, but enemies, who must be destroyed. Their enemy is not just pursuing a different political agenda. He is laying waste to the country they love. They must rally others to its defence.

They are outsiders. Insurgents. Opposed by the establishment and a hostile media. They must look for innovative ways to disseminate their message.

At times, their methods walk close to the line. Or across it. They are prepared to engage in direct action. They deploy personal abuse. Some have even compared the policies of the present administration with those of Hitler’s Reich.

Above all, they are driven by an iron certainty. The certainty that although they are few, they speak for the many. And that where they lead, the masses will follow.

The analogy is not perfect. Nor is it meant to be. Ed Miliband is not Sarah Palin. Labour has not been hijacked by crazed ideologues. Our front bench has not, as far as I’m aware, branded David Cameron the anti-Christ.

But wait, and watch. Tomorrow morning we will wake to significant Republican gains. There will be much horror and hand-wringing.

Then it will begin. Quietly at first. But then louder. The drum beat.

“We must learn”. “Look at what they’ve achieved”. “If Palin can do it…”.

Ignore where the tea party sits on the political spectrum. It will not be an exclusively right wing clamour, though elements of the right will seek to leap upon the bandwagon, much to Cameron and Clegg’s discomfort.

The tea party will find its strongest champions on the left. Their organisational model. Their ideological vigour. Their perceived political success. All will be seized in a strange, comradely embrace.

Some comrades are already marching in step. According to the nationwide tea party movement, they are a political “ecosystem”:

“Each individual and group within this ecosystem determines where they want to place their focus, and works independently to accomplish their own unique goals, but communicates and collaborates with every other individual and group within the ecosystem, so that we are all moving the ball forward to achieve the objective that unites us all.”

Compare that with the prospectus recently advanced by compass, whom Ed Miliband box-checked in his conference speech. The compass solution is for the left

“to create spaces in which people can determine their future collectively. These are spaces such as trade unions, mutuals and co-operatives. Pluralism is about letting new things happen on a journey of trial, experiment and failure. Democratic engagement may take longer to reach a conclusion than a central diktat, but results in more effective outcomes”.

The tea party does not, of course, hold a patent on decentralised organising. Barack Obama himself deployed his background of community-based campaigning to spectacular effect. The centre does not always hold.

But nor does decentralisation automatically mean moderation. Far from it. The tea party is forcing the Republicans to adopt a hard line, core votes strategy. No one more so than that queen of political hard core, Sarah Palin.

“The tea party movement is not a top-down operation”, she told the national tea party convention in February:

“This year, there are going to be some tough primaries. And I think that’s good. Competition in these primaries is good. Competition makes us work harder and be more efficient and produce more. And I hope you’ll get out there and work hard for the candidates who reflect your values, your priorities, because despite what the pundits want you to think, contested primaries aren’t civil war. They’re democracy at work, and that’s beautiful”.

Activist values. Core values. Activist priorities. Core priorities.

Again, we already hear faint echoes on the left.

“Our working-class base cannot be dismissed as a ‘core vote’ and taken for granted. We need to understand the real landscape of middle England to strengthen our appeal to voters right across the income scale, we need to recognise the concerns and nature of modern affluence, and we need to change our style of leadership. To do this we need, just as we did at the start of New Labour, to go back to our core values and apply them to the world in which we find ourselves”.

So said Ed Miliband, in his speech outlining how Labour must “change to win”.

Sarah Palin thinks she’s winning. Riding to victory. Quite literally. Her tea party express has been grinding out the miles. From Reno to Concorde. Her slogan? “We’re taking our country back”. It sounds familiar.

Of course, the tea party activists do not see their strategy as partisan. They are not the fringe. They are the mainstream. “Everyday Americans”, according to Palin.

“Who grow our food and run our small businesses, who teach our kids and fight our wars. They’re folks in small towns and cities across this great nation who saw what was happening and they saw and were concerned and they got involved”.

Just like you and me. Struggling to make ends meet. Raise their kids. Fight a high intensity counter-insurgency operation across the length and breadth of the Khyber Pass.

I equals we, equals all of us. Not for the tea party the mere dip of inflated expectations. Or the traditional unpopularity of a mid-term administration. Rather, a political tsunami. A popular uprising. The Fight Back.

Again, Labour is already preparing a similar narrative. In Scotland and Wales the party is upbeat. Alex Salmond is history. The valleys are within our grasp. There is a perception that the local elections will lead to the annihilation of the Lib Dems and the vindication of our strategy. Whatever that may be.

But we – and Republicans – would do well to pause. And remember. Neil Kinnock’s 44% share of the vote in 1990 local elections. Newt Gingrich’s “contract with America” in 1994.

Populism should not be confused with pragmatism. In the elections that matter, anger at the governing party does not automatically translate into an endorsement of its rivals. When the ballot boxes are opened, there are rarely enough core votes to go around.

Ed Miliband told us that to reconnect with the public, we must learn humility. The tea party does not do humble. Over time, its passion will start to sound shrill in the ears of the electorate. Its confidence perceived as arrogance. That is not a winning formula.

I suspect that in a couple of years time, Sarah Palin and her friends will learn this lesson the hard way. Labour must ensure that we are not forced to learn it too.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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11 Responses to “Ed Miliband is not Sarah Palin”

  1. Will Straw says:

    Interesting article, Dan. I certainly agree with you that we need to be careful to fall into an easy populist trap and think that local election and devolution victories reflect any real momentum with the British public. The same is true in the US where Republicans will do well tonight but will struggle to remove Obama in 2012.

    But I diverge from you on your opposition to pluralism. Electoral maths – even without AV – mean that Coalitions will be more likely in future. The public also like parties working together. So we need to show that we can work with the Social Liberals in the Lib Dems and with the Greens. That doesn’t mean that we should accept ideas from anywhere and end up with a pick and mix manifesto like 1983 but it does mean that if Compass run a good campaign on High Pay with smart suggestions on tax avoidance and pay ratios, we should listen, while also heeding warnings from Progress and elsewhere of ending up on the wrong side of the welfare reform debate.

    That’s what I see as the spirit of 1997 and what, I hope, will drive Ed M’s leadership.

  2. Emma Burnell says:

    So we’ve already had “Ed Miliband is (not) Che Guevara” now “Ed Miliband is (not) Sarah Palin” where next?

    Some suggestions:

    Ed Miliband is (not) Adolf Hitler.
    Ed Miliband is (not) Augusto Pinochet.
    Ed Miliband is (not) Catwoman.

    Seriously though, the main problem is that you are conflating politically neutral ideas around political organising with the intentionally irrational idea that if we assume a less centralised model, we will automatically become as unthinkingly far right or left as the extremes of our supporters.

    You can’t win an argument unless you make an argument, and giving all members a voice gives you a chance to win the arguments you think they are wrong on. As long as we all start from key principles and values, then how we achieve our aims is up for debate until the best way to progress, whether it be from the left or right wing, is found.

  3. Dan Hodges says:


    On the Ed comparison. I thought I’d better make crystal clear I’m not comparing him to Sarah Palin, because if I didn’t, as sure as apples is apples someone would have jumped on here and said I was.

    On the pluralism argument. What I find worrying/frustrating/annoying is that there is no critique of it. It’s just accepted. Established wisdom. A zero sum game.

    If only we learn to be more pluralistic, everything will be OK. There is no down side. Embrace the new pluralism. Or else.

    Worse, decentralised organising structures are an end in themselves. They are, by definition, progressive. They inevitably produce progressive outcomes.

    I’m just posing the question that if Palin and the Tea Party are so hot on them then maybe, just maybe, that should give us pause for thought.


  4. What seems to be missing from this analysis, which is the basis of what Labour should be learning from the Tea Party, is the link between the idea of social antagonism and organisation. This is why I’d argue that ideas around political organising are not politically neutral and the Tea Party have co-opted an essentially left-wing form of politics.

    It is correct to say that anger is not enough, but what the Tea Party are doing, and what Labour should be attempting, is to politicise and organise, vague and indeterminate anger. Across much of the developed world, right-wing populists have been much better at organising the anger the financial crisis has provoked. They’ve also, ironically, not only been better at organising locally but also across borders. This is because they’ve been able to offer a clear explanation of what has gone wrong based on a comprehensive, single antagonism. The comprehensiveness of this antagonism also underpins their pluralism, their ability to mobilise secular, free-market libertarians and the Christian ultra-right.

    Where the Tea Party are wrong is that their antagonism is insufficiently fundamental and its class content is displaced. It’s an antagonism between hard-working, patriotic whites and both the Muslims and the ‘liberal elites’ who undermine this culture. As the ‘solving’ of this antagonism can be integrated into American capitalism, you have the, seeming, paradox of a grassroots movement funded by multimillionaires.

    The left alternative is to politicise people’s anger authentically by working to transform this cultural antagonism into a class (and given the disproportionate effect of government cuts on women) and gender based, political antagonism. This requires a lot more bravery from Ed Miliband changes than we’ve seen so far. As far as I can see, this is the only way of presenting government policy as a political choice rather than a necessity and not letting what at the moment is fairly inchoate anger go to waste.

  5. Dan Hodges says:

    Labour Partisan, thanks for the constructive feedback.

    And congratulations.

    You are the first to pick up the drum sticks…

  6. Sunny H says:

    Heh – Emma, brilliant comment.

    I don’t think it’s either / or. As Emma says, you can reach out to the base while convincing independents too.

    And agreed with Will on need for pluralism too.

  7. Dan Hodges says:


    This pluralism is a wonderful thing. You reach the base. You reach the independents. Your reach the core. You reach the floaters.

    You never have to make a hard choice. Or lay out a definitive strategy. Neither to the right nor the left. Somewhere in between.

    Or rather, to the left today, the right tomorrow.

    And as we know. Where there is compromise, their is truth.



  8. Peter Chomko says:

    Speaking as an American progressive somewhat closer to the action in this case, I’m afraid that your characterization of the Tea Party is rather sadly mistaken.

    The idea that Tea Partiers are “outsiders…opposed by the establishment and a hostile media” is just plain wrong. The people responsible for funding most Tea Party activism are names most American progressives already know and despise: Dick Armey. The Koch brothers. Karl Rove and his undisclosed donors.

    And describing our media as “hostile” to the Tea Party is a joke–Fox News has been openly supportive of the Tea Party all along, the movement was launched by a rant from CNBC commentator Rick Santelli, and right-wing, Tea Party-supporting conservative activists are being picked up by our major news networks like hotcakes: Redstate’s Erick Ericksson is already a CNN talking head, and currently ABC News is embroiled in some controversy over its will-they-or-won’t-they decision to employ race-baiter Andrew Breitbart as an election night analyst.

    The Tea Party is the phenomenon it is in America because it’s supported by big money and the right-wing (not necessarily Republican, but still very much right-wing) establishment. They’re not grassroots, they’re astroturf.

  9. Dan Hodges says:


    That part of my description was based on their own self-perception, rather than the reality.

    I’m sure the Tea Party are constantly working themselves into a lather over their opponents in the ‘liberal media’.

    I take the point about the astroturfing, but again their own perception, and pitch, is of a decentralised grass roots movement.

    Good luck tonight by the way.


  10. Dan, if you think you can avoid pluralism, you’re evey bit as doomed to defeat as the Labour party of 1983 and 1987. The difference is that we could actually win the votes of the staff for the victory party of 2015.

    Yes, the Tea Party depends on a popular uprising. But they exist in a universe where socialism has been dead since they squashed Debs, where progress entails voting for a congenitally vagued mixed-raced centrist.

    That is not Britain. Populism does not equal Sarah Palin and your crude attempt to suggest so is frankly contemptuous.

    Labour should accept where the political reality does not fit with our position. A good example of this is the child benefit fiasco. Retreating to safer grounds on child tax credit is safer operationally and strategically.

    We should accept that we come from a different political tradition, but use only that that is politically useful to us.

    Those who insist on sharing with us an entirely different political environment in the hope of obtaining an entirely different political environment should be cast out into the darkness, where I hear there is a wailing and a gnashing of teeth.

  11. Dan Hodges says:


    I’ve got to be honest, I’m struggling a bit with this one.

    Are you saying it was a lack of pluralism that cost us the elections in 1983 and 1987?


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