In the summer of 2017 to be Labour was very heaven. The party did not win the General Election that year, but it appeared to have everything else: youth, juice, ideas, memes and strident forward-motion. Labour was not in office, but it was in power. The under-40s saw the Conservative Party as a cack-handed version of the NSDAP: sick, evil, and weak. A humiliating GIF, circulating endlessly in those months, showed a chuckling Theresa May on the Commons benches, with a pixelated kipper sliding wetly down her throat. Her days were haunted; her authority was punctured; her majority had evaporated.
When Our Lord Jeremy extended his messianic balm over the fields of Glastonbury that June, the crowd was higher than ever — not just on the usuals — but on pure, uncut, top-shelf New Jerusalem. The torpor and apathy and cruelty of the 2010s were over at last. Salvation was at hand: Brexit would be reversed, affordable housing would be built, borders would be abolished. Every child would receive their own mega fast broadband router, and sex workers would be free to roam the land, maligned no more.
All over the country, roses shed their thorns; at Longleat, lions lay with lambs. No more either/or distinctions, from now on the British would embrace both/and. We were going to have it all, and so would the Palestinians. “That politics that got out of the box,” he roared from the Pyramid Stage, “is not going back in any box.”
And yet here we are, barely the length of a parliament later. Corbyn’s politics is not only boxed up — it is entombed, buried deep beneath the political firmament like nuclear waste. His replacement as Labour leader has less charisma than a long video of Iain Duncan Smith doing a jigsaw puzzle.
A few weeks ago, Keir Starmer appeared on television, watched by a trifling audience, and cried. (You would be crying too if you were the leader of the Labour party.) He seemed needy and awkward, like Labour’s losing, patronising, pints n’ flags n’ chip butties strategy in the Hartlepool by-election. Another by-election loss in Batley and Spen is about to follow.
What can save them? Well, when the going gets tough, the Party gets writing books. Labour luminaries are as prolix and as prolific as the most unhinged Victorian essayists. Labour tomes have fallen from the sky all year: John Cruddas’s The Dignity of Labour, will shortly be joined by Jess Philips’s Everything You Really Need to Know about Politics, and Lisa Nandy’s Finding Our Place in A World Falling Apart. And September will be shaken to its very core by Tristram Hunt’s book about Josiah Wedgewood, who he calls — sigh — “the Steve Jobs of the 18th century”. But the most revealing Labour books this year come from Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, because they barely mention Labour at all.
Miliband’s is called Go Big: How to Fix Our World. In 2015, unfortunate Ed looked as if he would be the first British politician to go down to posterity notable only for his association with a sandwich since… the actual Earl of Sandwich. Then he reinvented himself as a podcaster. Co-hosting Reasons to be Cheerful with the radio presenter Geoff Lloyd, Ed revealed that beneath the dorky, robotic exterior he possessed a more dorky, less robotic interior. The podcast was rampantly downloaded, and Miliband was profiled as if he were a cross between a sexier member of the pre-Raphaelites and a knight of the Algonquin Round Table. Miliband, the nearly man, had arrived.
Brown’s is called Seven Ways to Change the World, and is clearly the harvest of a long lockdown. Shakespeare wrote King Lear during his own plague-induced quarantine; Brown found not one, but seven whole ways to change the entire world. It reads like he bookmarked the Wikipedia page of the Marshall Plan, and googled “most inspiring quotes by dead African-Americans”. Like King Lear, Seven Ways is a tragedy, albeit for different reasons
Both Go Big and Seven Ways belong to the “everything can be fixed, trust us, we’re experts” genre of political treatise, which can be traced all the way back to Plato’s Republic. (Plato is a bit more honest about what technocratic governance means for liberty, democracy and the average person than Brown and Miliband are.) Both books believe the world is there to be hacked into betterness by enlightened politicians, inventive think-tankers, and dogged activists. Both see international cooperation as preferable to “populist nationalism”.
Both books are optimistic, in the sense that they are poached in the mental and emotional atmosphere of 1997. Both Miliband and Brown have little useful or new to say about the Labour Party, Brexit, crime, defence, migration, China, or the spectacular failure of international bodies such as the WHO during the pandemic. Both books are exactly what you would expect them to be. Who is this for, other than the authors themselves?
Miliband is, I suppose, quite self-deprecating and almost aware of his ridiculousness. (He comes dangerously close to making a joke on page 9 of Go Big.) It is possible to imagine bantering with a fleece-wearing Ed while he tries to flog you overpriced organic honey at a Sunday morning farmer’s market in the Cotswolds. Brown on the other hand, remains crashingly, breathtakingly grand. Seven Ways is played in the major keys, and Brown is frozen in “We not only saved the world” mode here. Again and again he batters the reader with his motto: global problems require global solutions.
Seven Ways leaves you with the impression that if Brown found his house on fire, he would convene a summit of global thought leaders before he called the local firemen. On a panel with Fareed Zakaria, Yuval Noah Harari, and Tedros Adhanom, Brown would discuss the best ways to put out a housefire. What temperature should the dowsing water be? How long should the firehose be? Do we have the right balance of gender, sexual and racial diversity among the firemen coming to put out the blaze? His house would be a blackened hulk long before the discussion finished. In Gordon’s world there is nothing that can’t be solved by invoking the world. It’s the view from the sky, never the view from the street. This is a social democrat’s brain after 15 years of motorcades.
What Gordon will never do again is hold real power. Powerlessness shadows both texts. There is a reason why these two ex-Labour leaders don’t want to think about Britain. Brexit. So they dredge up their global solutions to global problems, straining for relevance and produce fantasies instead. If Labour stood on a manifesto cribbed from these books, they’d be lucky to get 500 votes outside the university towns.
When they actually had power, what did they do with it? Miliband loved gimmicks as leader of the opposition, like unconvincing visits to Greggs and wearisome conversations with Russell Brand. (“The Tories should be worried,”wrote Owen Jones in May 2015, after Miliband met Brand on YouTube.) Meanwhile Brown is lauded as one of the last true intellects in British politics. A serious, big-brained, adult. And yet, as chancellor he could barely leave a room with Tony Blair in it without slamming the door so hard it lost its hinges. For a decade Brown stalked, sulked and screamed, all but consumed by tapeworms of envy that squirmed around inside him. Has there ever been a more emotionally delicate politician? “In the aftermath of 9/11, Tony rang Gordon to ask for his advice,” recalls Blair’s old advisor Jonathan Powell. “Instead of responding Gordon used the call to demand to know when Tony was going to resign. Tony slammed the phone down in a rage.”
These are men who could barely read the mood of their colleagues, let alone the country, let alone the global community. How to fix the world? How about you start by trying to fix a pothole lads? The problem for Labour is that its members may actually read these books and take them seriously. They would be much better off reading Edmund Burke, or V.S. Naipaul. Then they might understand Britain — which is currently reverting back to its spiky, crabby, nasty “fund the NHS, hang the nonces” conservative mean at the moment.
There is almost no chance that young Labourites will do that. They don’t want to understand their enemies, so they’ll be doomed to underestimate them. This is a party whose members, or the vocally online ones, spit teeth at the sight of a Union Jack. When they try to come up with a patriotism of the Left, as the talented Dan Jarvis did in a Fabian Society pamphlet this year, they fall back on platitudes. Left patriotism, Jarvis writes, should invoke the “Britain of the Tolpuddle martyrs, the Chartists, and the miners’ strike.” I can imagine this will be really appealing to all those people who actually care who the Tolpuddle martyrs and the Chartists were. The Tories, I suspect, will be happy to keep the flag, the Queen, and the Armed Forces.
Where is Labour now? In the same place they were in 1964, when Perry Anderson wrote of the party trapped in an “isolated, spot-lit enclave, surrounded on every side by hostile territory”. It’s an enclave in a land that speaks a language foreign to the party. None of the maps makes any sense. The only road out is very dark, cold and lonely. And if the party is asking Brown and Miliband for directions, they’ll be walking it for a long while yet.
At least in 1964 Labour were prepared to fight their way out of enemy territory. “If it’s the last thing I do,” said Anthony Crosland, “I’m going to destroy every fucking Grammar School in England. And Wales. And Northern Ireland.” And he actually did it! Nobody in Labour today looks capable of destroying anything, apart from the party itself. They prattle on about their values (without saying what they are) on the morning shows, or cry like X Factor contestants, or are given the run around by George Galloway in by-elections, while the country turns away in embarrassment. No wonder these old leaders don’t write books about the party today. Writing the obituary of something you put in the ground is not for everyone.