Trouble at Miliband

by | Jun 26, 2011

Former Labour-government climate activist, Ed Miliband — who, for some reason, is now the opposition leader — has an interview in the Guardian about his and his party’s performance.

Ed Miliband today lays out far-reaching reforms designed to modernise Labour’s relations with the trade unions, open the party up to the public, and reinvigorate what he describes as its boring annual conference.

The Labour leader regards these changes as critical to his efforts to get the party back in touch with the electorate, and ensure it stays in opposition for only one term.

One way Miliband could make the Labour Party conference less boring is to make himself absent from it and public life in general, assuming that there’s nobody as dull and disconnected as he is, waiting to fill his shoes. The interview continues…

In a Guardian interview Miliband says: “I want to open up the leadership to the party and the party to the country. In a society that is changing so fast in so many ways, we cannot continue as we are, with essentially a closed structure that was formed a century ago.”

Such an admission that the Labour Party is disconnected from the public ought to cause more self-reflection than blaming the legacy of its organisational structure. It’s palpable nonsense, anyway, the structure of the Labour Party of today — never mind its political principles — owes little to the structure of the Labour Party of 1911. Over its history, it has distanced itself from unions, and favoured ‘third way’ and social democracy in place of socialism. It was the Union vote that won the leadership election for Ed Miliband over his brother, David, and that he now seeks to ‘modernise’ the party’s relationship with them is hardly a surprise. Unions, too, have been unable to sustain the numbers of their own membership. Disconnection is rife.

Says Miliband…

I have a clear sense of where the country needs to go and what needs to happen to the party.

Really? What’s that then? Amongst his proposals is that,

Non-party members, such as Greenpeace or other NGOs, would be entitled to speak at party conference as “registered consultees”. Miliband said: “In order to have a good conversation at party conference, you’ve got to expand the conversation.”

But aren’t Greenpeace already involved in the conversation? Here they are sitting on Parliament’s rooftop…

And just to point out that I’m not merely Labour-bashing, but making a serious point here, here’s David Cameron, singing from Greenpeace’s Rooftop.

[youtube 8gr5rIK097E]

Greenpeace and other NGOs are already heavily involved in the policy-making process, at all levels Government, national and international. Inviting them to party conferences — where they’re already invited, anyway — will not broaden the debate, but will narrow it yet further.

NGOs have been co-opted by governments and politicians for two reasons. The first is that supposition that NGOs can make government policies appear to be responsive to needs, be they social or environmental. The ‘ethical’ stamp of approval from self-appointed activists thereby gain some semblance of legitimacy: ‘it doesn’t matter that nobody is voting for us, we’re saving the planet’. The second is a supposition that NGOs can help to reconnect the gap between politicians and the public.

But NGOs are neither democratic nor accountable. Their influence is not legitimate. But there’s worse news for Miliband. The idea that NGOs can mobilise popular support is a proven failure. Back in 2009, Miliband, conscious of the fact that the government’s climate policies lacked democratic legitimacy, asked the environmental movement to come up with some bodies,

When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization. Maybe it’s an odd thing for someone in government to say, but I just think there’s a real opportunity and a need here.

The result was a shambles. Miliband grew closer to the Age of Stupid director, Franny Armstrong, who established the 10:10 campaign and the couple made many public appearances together in which she’d hector him about not taking climate seriously enough, and he’d whinge that there wasn’t enough support. What Miliband hadn’t noticed is just how totally the 10:10 campaign was incapable of generating public support. For starters, the message of Age of Stupid is profoundly anti-popular, and expresses contempt for the unwashed, ever-consuming masses and their desires for more, better, faster, cheaper. This was epitomised in their attempts to ‘connect’ with the public with an advert depicting the violent and bloody murder of individuals — including children — who didn’t appear to be taking the climate message seriously. Climate sceptics, for all the rumours that oil companies give $millions to ‘deniers’ to ‘distort’ the public perception of the climate debate could not have created anything that so succinctly captured the nastiest side of the environmental movement and its character.

The 10:10 campaign’s ill-judged attempt to ‘communicate’ across the divide demonstrated that NGOs serve as outsourced government departments. What this relationship reveals is that, for the likes of Ed Miliband, the legitimacy of his role, and the basis for the policies he creates are after-thoughts. He’s found himself as the leader of the opposition, and is now thinking ‘ok, I’m leader of the Labour Party, now how can I make myself as popular as I need to be to be the leader of the Labour Party’. And it’s as though he’s decided which policies he wants, and now wants to set about making those policies legitimate without actually debating them — call in the NGOs. This is politics upside down. It should be popular support which brings political leaders and their ideas to power. Instead, we see bland and hollow managerial politicians in bed with NGOs employed as public image consultants in some mutually self-serving play for power. Miliband’s programme can only make it a more ugly spectacle, assuming, that is, anyone is even watching.


  1. Alex Cull

    “…he’d whinge that there wasn’t enough support.” Sentiments shared by Miliband Snr, who famously accused the public, in October 2009, of “lacking a sense of urgency in the face of the potentially devastating consequences of climate change.”

    ‘David Miliband said that people had grown apathetic about the issue when they needed to be galvanised into action before the Copenhagen climate change summit in December.

    “For a lot of people the penny hasn’t dropped that this climate change challenge is real and is happening now,” he said. “There isn’t yet that feeling of urgency and drive and animation about the Copenhagen conference.”‘

    And as it turned out…

  2. geoffchambers

    Milliband says:
    “When you think about all the big historic movements, from the suffragettes, to anti-apartheid, to sexual equality in the 1960s, all the big political movements had popular mobilization.”
    He forgets to mention the two biggest – CND and the anti Iraq war movement. I wonder why.
    New Labour is a failing brand which wants some of that Greenpeace brand image – brave blokes in a dinghy confronting whalers and warships. Perhaps they should take a leaf from Plane Stupid’s period costume demo book, dye themselves sepia, don flat caps and march on Parliament singing “Fight for Better Wages”.

  3. Anonymous

    Gee, so it’s only fair for business to pressure the govt, but not by anyone else?

  4. Mooloo

    Gee, so it’s only fair for business to pressure the govt, but not by anyone else?

    You need to work on your reading comprehension. Ben is not talking about pressuring the government, which is what the Eco-NGOs do all the time. They are welcome to do that from outside government.

    He’s talking about Millibrand allowing them a platform on the Labour conference. That’s inside the political process.

    Imagine if the Tories were to get a bunch of industrial leaders are their big ticket speakers. Then make the heads of Shell and Exxon “registered consultees” to the Conservative Party! That’s the equivalent exercise.

  5. Rich

    “thereby gain some somnolence of legitimacy”

    I was going to say, “Surely you mean ‘some semblance'” then I thought, “No, better as it is.”

    [Ben: Thanks Rich. Spell checker haste.]

  6. geoffchambers

    Ed Milliband’s catastrophic strike interview, in which he repeats one single phrase five times in reply to five different questions, can be seen, together with an article by the interviewer here
    It’s also the subject of an amusing article by Charlie Brooker at
    Brooker points out that other politicians (Osborne, Darling) have done the same thing, and attributes it to the desire to produce one quotable soundbite for the evening news, leading politicians to parrot the phrases produced by their minders, irrespective of the question posed.
    Brooker’s explanation is convincing, but contradicted by something I found while transcribing last year’s Guardian debate on Climategate. This work in progress is can be found at Alex Cull’s transcript site at
    During the 98 minute debate, Bob Watson, ex head of the IPCC, chief scientific adviser to DEFRA, and White House aide, gives the same response half a dozen times, to half a dozen questions, in a stream of consciousness which sounds like a hail of bullet points run together with a minimum of pronouns and conjunctions. Listening to his garbled apology for a reasoned argument, it’s difficult to believe that the man is a “top scientist”. One can only imagine that his immense influence in the corridors of power is due to the fact that he speaks the same language as his masters.
    Watson is clearly not worried about the reactions of voters, so one can only assume these people talk like this because they think like this, and they think like this because their sources of information are formulated in this way. Spend your life reading Executive Summaries, and your mind becomes a Powerpoint Presentation.
    A lot of people are worrying about Ed, since he’s obviously not very good at his job, which is conceived to be similar to that of a manager selling his business plan to the board of directors. My worry is that he may be replaced by someone more competent, and we’ll lose sight of the real problem, which is how low our expectations of politicians are.

  7. Shub

    This post shows the importance of the dark side of societal attributes that are under-appreciated in democracies.

    The exercise of power is effective only in existence of minor ‘co-factors’. Such as, say, whimsy for example. In the devolution from monarchies, personal whimsy and discretion has been continually and progressively discredited as a value. “Why are we passing this law that men will tip their hats when they pass by a lady? Because the king felt so”. – this is gone. Instead, there is a scientific ‘reason’ for law-making and legislating, there is ‘logic’ and this kills the joy for those who rule, and those who are. This tendency is reactionary, socialist in its basic nature and has its roots in the Frech Revolution. It is precisely this tendency that Bastiat criticized.

    While it is laudable to imagine and strive for rule of reason, what constitutes ‘reason’ and ‘logic’ however is as slippery and treacherous as anything else. Therefore it is inevitable that the original problem returns. A Western democracy like Britain – mature in its ways – sclerosed beyond any recognition – is precisely the place where its rulers and bureaucrats take its own laws too seriously and apply it to themselves with the utmost of mindless vigor. All venues of exercise of power are thus choked off. The outcome is that power, which can scarcely be contained, finds its own outlets – witness NGOs, quangos and other power parasites.

    True power is power without accountability. Power with accountability is no power. This is what our democratically elected leaders have – cordoned off, circumscribed, restrained and bound down. Is it any wonder then, that Greenpeace writes our manifestos?

  8. geoffchambers

    This sounds as if it could be really interesting if translated into terms we could all understand. Are you saying that our rulers, frustrated at their lack of real power, get a surrogate kick out of handing over decision-making to the Parliament-scaling banner-waving he-men of Greenpeace?
    I don’t see the illusory nature of political power as being frustrating for our leaders. The trapping are surely enough. Writing “MP” after your name, being listened to by (sometimes) respectful crowds, and writing your own expense claims are surely pleasures we can all understand, which make up for the lack of real influence over the workings of the world.
    You could argue that the true usefulness of legislators is in the process of getting elected itself. As with the apparently pointless mating ritual of some exotic bird of paradise, the process of telling electors what they want to hear, and the cull of the unsuccessful, constitute a spectator sport which helps to reconcile the population to the political process.
    I’m not sure that Bastiat has much to offer us, beyond a couple of amusing anecdotes. Like his contemporary Marx, he tended to interpret social action to fit his theory. Unlike Marx, he never founded a movement that anyone voted for.

  9. Mooloo


    Bastiat offers Shub a chance to sound well read and urbane. What more do you want?

    Power with accountability is no power.

    Rot. A cool sounding piece of pseud. No-one anywhere has ever held total power and so for all rulers it is a matter of scale how much direct power they hold. Today parties tend to hold what individuals used to hold, but the power is real enough. Even coalition governments can ram through unpopular actions.

    In any case the delay mechanisms of representative democracy are such that any accountability is long delayed. Cameron can bomb Libya with nothing more than a vote from his own side. If he pays for that decision, it will be a long time coming.

    As Ben points out, the “green” decisions of the modern parties are particularly free from any accountability. They attempt to garner support by means of emotional blackmail (if don’t like windmills, you must be against a good environment, you bad person).

  10. Shub

    I rubbed your mental expectations arising from the intellectual bracket you put me in, the wrong way?

    If we imagine someone in a position of power, say Cameron, to be ‘frustrated’, what frame of reference would that be in? One, in which he comes to office trying to do something ‘for the people’, ‘for the country’, ‘for his constituents’ etc.

    But this is a purely egocentric perspective on power and the people who occupy positions of power, isn’t it? That’s what we think he should want to do, not what he wants to do!

    Indeed, Mooloo inadvertently supports what I laid out – though I was not very good at explaining it – Britain would do such a thing as bombing Libya precisely because there is so little room for the exercise of power elsewhere. Again, as he (?) points out, accountability for display of power is almost nil for actions like bombing Libya. That is exactly what I meant – power seeks venues for unaccountable expression, despite our best efforts. If these are lacking, it will create them.

    As for the devolution to Greenpeace, that is not Cameron wants to do, but that is just what has happened.

  11. George Carty

    Indeed, Mooloo’s point perhaps explains why societies which prize freedom at home (from classical Athens, to Republican Rome, to the Rashidun Caliphate, to 18th- and 19th-century Britain, to the United States today) are still prone to be vicious imperialists abroad. Although such imperialism in the end necessitates large standing armies which are liable to destroy democracy at home as well.

  12. Mooloo

    I used the bombing of Libya because it was a nice clear cut example and because, as a non-Briton, my knowledge of British internal politics can be a bit ropey.

    The same ability to do things, despite heated public opposition occurs internally too. Cameron will try and reform the NHS. He will succeed or fail based on his relative power to the NHS, not any issues of accountability.

    The inability of Cameron to give the appearance of strong rule is not accountability. It is that the political and economic system is already more or less set up the way he wants it. All the major parties only differ on details, so of course the changes they make are not dramatic.

    They are foundering, trying to find new ways forward. Ways to distinguish and legitimise themselves. Hence the appeal of “Green”, which they think makes them look hip and new.

    If the UKIP or BNP came to power, it would soon be pretty obvious that a British PM with strong party support can do lots of radical things. The current lot don’t lack power. They lack ideas.

  13. Ben Pile

    I missed this discussion, somehow.

    Shub, in this post, I attempted to discuss power and authority. Real authority, I suggested, means not having to use power. For e.g. people who trust in authority are likely to volunteer their observance of it, rather than need to be forced.

    I don’t know anything about Bastiat’s idea, but it seems to me that it is possible to have an endless debate about whether the notion of ‘the divine right of kings’, or mere terror allowed for whimsy. I’m confused about how the opposition to arbitrary laws can be characterised as ‘reactionary’, or why it should be problematic that it is ‘socialist’ in origin — if it is. I can see the point about how this may produce bureaucracy and can become ‘disenchanting’, however, after Weber’s ideas.

    A Western democracy like Britain – mature in its ways – sclerosed beyond any recognition – is precisely the place where its rulers and bureaucrats take its own laws too seriously and apply it to themselves with the utmost of mindless vigor.

    I certainly agree with the description. But what I’ve suggested here is that the issue is not sclerosis of the institutions of democracy as such, but the sclerosis of the parties which dominate them — right and left alike — and more broadly, too. The problem for politicians, then, is how to legitimise their functions. Professional and managerial politics of the kind the UK has simply fails to engage the public. Obviously, a return to the ethics of the ancien régime is a non-starter. When Charles takes the throne, the chances of Britain becoming a republic will escalate!

    There is a discussion to be had, I think, about whether this situation has been caused by the mechanics of our ‘mature’ democratic institutions — i.e., whether it was inevitable that we’d end up with our bland, joyless arrangement — or it has been, as I’ve suggested, a collapse of the ideas that are represented within them. Maybe somewhere in between. But I’d suggest that a broader look at the substance of the hollow notions that dominate mainstream and radical politics and across the putative spectrum today suggests that there is a real problem of loss of identity. It’s this which forces environmentalism up the agenda, I would suggest, as parties and perspectives struggle to identify themselves and their projects. This internal crisis manifests itself as a crisis caused from without: the sky is falling in. It follows that a crisis in self-confidence appears as a problem with the world, and with people in general. A breakdown in trust ensues, but I don’t beleive it can be restored by resurrecting the traditions of the past, left, right, or monarchy.


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