If Ed Miliband fails to make a breakthrough this year, there will be many, particularly amongst those who supported him for the leadership, who blame it on the terrible business of modern politics. The tragedy of Ed, they will say - are already saying - is that he's an intellectual who doesn't do showbusiness; an homme sérieux in an age that demands circus performers (they used to say this about Gordon Brown, too. As with Ed, a comparison is invariably drawn to the epitome of style over substance, Tony Blair). Such a conclusion will be used to obscure or salve a discomforting thought: that Miliband's political analysis is too shallow for the electorate, rather than the other way around.
Take, for example, the proposition that businesses are divided into nice ones and nasty ones, or that the last thirty years of British government have been essentially one disastrous continuum, an argument made in the New Statesman this week by one of Miliband's closest friends and advisers, Marc Stears. Only a professor of political theory could string together such a list of unexamined banalities and get away with it:
Our politics is in flux and confusion is the almost inevitable result. The flux is the direct consequence of the crash of 2008. That event did not just bring over a decade of Labour government to its end, it also displayed the bankruptcy of a political, social and economic order that began in the 1980s and continued unabated through the premierships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
...It was an order premised on the idea that the financial might of the City of London would power economic growth in the UK so long as it was left essentially unfettered by the demands of normal democratic politics. The tax revenues that then flowed from the City would prop up the rest of the country, either by supporting employment through public sector expansion or by provided a financial guarantee for welfare benefits. Labour opposed this order in its early days. But it eventually largely capitulated to it. In the Party's "New Labour" formation, it openly committed itself to maintaining the same order, just running it more efficiently and more equitably than the Conservatives had.
So, now you know: in case you were under the impression that New Labour did anything significantly different from the Thatcher government, you were wrong. Well, as Philip Larkin might say, useful to get that learnt. No subtlety or nuance here: Blair and Brown didn't even abate Thatcherism; later on, Stears says there were only "minor differences" between Thatcher and Blair (and note the unembarrassed nostalgia for the pre-Blair Labour Party). I haven't come across such a sophisticated reading of political history since since I last visited the bottom half of Comment Is Free.
Like most of Miliband's speeches, the piece floats in a fog of abstraction and generalisation. Note that Stears doesn't provide any figures to support his contention that the City "powered" Britain's economic growth under New Labour or that the country's public services became dependent on its tax revenues. Why let figures or facts muddy a good old Faust story?
Stears continues with an encomium to the current Labour leader:
He was the first to identify the dangers our economic malaise posed not just to the poor but to the vast middle class of our country. He was the first to call for a new culture of responsibility, not just among those dependent on benefits but on those in our boardrooms and among our nation's shareholders. He was the first to highlight both the moral evil and the economic stupidity of runaway executive pay.
Such far-reaching calls for change scare people.
Um - did I miss something? Which far-reaching calls for change? The only specific call for change Stears mentions is Ed's call for a "culture of responsibility". Whooo, scary! But seriously: there is something objectionable about the tone of this piece, and Miliband should be careful not to emulate it. It's deeply patronising to argue that the only reason Miliband's message isn't being hailed is that it's too scary, or that everyone is confused and only Stears and Miliband are seeing things clearly, patiently waiting for the rest of the class to catch up.
It isn't just patronising. It is risibly - and, for Miliband, dangerously - self-deluding.