Advice for Ed: Ed needs to get in touch with his inner red neck

by Jonathan Todd

Raymond Geuss – writing, incidentally, in a book with a cover so starkly evocative that it is almost worth buying for the cover alone – is right about one thing:

“Politics is a craft or a skill, and ought precisely not to be analysed, as Plato’s Socrates assumes, as the mastery of a set of principles or theories. This does not imply that political agents do not use theories. Rather, part of their skill depends on being able to choose skilfully which models of reality to use in a certain context, and to take account of the ways in which various theories are limited and ways in which they are useful or fail. The successful exercise of this skill is often called ‘political judgment’.”

He is, however, wrong about another:

“Any society has a tendency to try to mobilise human inertia in order to protect itself as much as possible from radical change, and one main way in which this can be done is through the effort to impose the requirement of ‘positivity’ or ‘constructiveness’ on potential critics: you can’t criticise the police system, the system of labour law, the organisation of health services, etc., unless you have a completely elaborated, positive alternative to propose. I reject this line of argument completely.”

This might suffice for agitators and academics, but not, ultimately, for someone who wishes to succeed in becoming prime minister.

What this series of blogs have offered are interpretations of theory, what Ed Miliband needs to make the most of party conference is political judgment. Nonetheless, theory, and the policy conclusions to which this theory leads, should be mastered by aspirant prime ministers.

It might seem absurd that someone could ascend to the highest office in the UK without deep reflection upon the country that they will lead, the theory that provides their lodestars and the point on the horizon where this country and these lodestars might meet. Oddly enough, though, the current occupant and arguably every prime minister since Thatcher has not really known why they were there, at least not when they first arrived in Downing Street. Even Thatcherism, as I’ve heard Lord Stewart Wood say at seminars, acquired coherence in retrospect that it did not have in 1979.

Miliband has grey matter to rival all these prime ministers. But it would be delusional to conclude that the lacking of animating mission displayed by these prime ministers is a consequence of their stupidity (though, it may partly be a consequence of them spending more time sharpening their elbows than thinking). What this recent history tells us is that it is a tough job devising and implementing a national mission.

While Miliband should not set out all of his plans this week, the cogs of his machine do need to be turning towards such plans. For this week he needs to give the assembled foot soldiers enough to galvanise and inspire them; a reassurance that their moral crusade is going somewhere. And more policy specifics, particularly if offered in plain language, may also be welcomed by voters increasingly willing to reconsider voting Labour.

It is timely for the aperitif of his national mission to be served. What this aperitif consists of and how much is offered to the foot soldiers are more matters of political judgment than theory, which for now only matters insofar as it is sufficiently understood that the steps taken this week are heading in the direction that the theory proscribes.

These blogs have tried to offer some thoughts on this theory. They have not advised on the most politically expedient course to tread between reassuring voters that we do have a plan and the risk-averse course of saying as little as possible to upset as few people as possible. Avoiding distracting from the continued implosion of the government is the primary attraction of the latter.

Yet there is a worry that the theory won’t be fully thought through and communicated as extensively as it should be by the time of the next election if some steps in this direction are not taken this week – not least as these steps are unlikely to be devoid of tough and sometimes paradoxical messages. Some of which have been suggested by this series of blogs:

The most effective moral reform will not be preachy and will not abandon the levers of mechanical reform. National leadership must acknowledge its limits: ceding power, both to local and international institutions; asking and sometimes requiring people to be the change that they want to see in the world; as eager to reform the UN as to revitalise local government.

All of which sounds horribly wonky.

Having watched a lot of the Republican and Democrat Conventions, I feel sure the best speech came from Bill Clinton. With confidence both in his ability to make the complex simpler and the intelligence of his audience, it also contained the most policy. “He’s so intelligent, but he’s still a red neck”, said a gushing fan to me afterwards.

There are many lessons for Labour in Clinton’s speech, as Jonathan Freedland has noted, but one is this: it is possible to provide policy detail without becoming wonky round the edges.

Let’s see your red neck, Ed. Hopefully you have a grand plan in your back pocket, which this series of blogs may have some relevance to, but keep it there for now.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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2 Responses to “Advice for Ed: Ed needs to get in touch with his inner red neck”

  1. Ray_North says:

    How can Ed Miliband win the votes of disaffected Lib-Dems like me? Here’s how:

  2. iain ker says:

    ‘I would rather be dropped into a vat of cobras than vote Tory’

    Meh – can be arranged.

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