Monday, 4 August 2014

Ed Miliband and the Problem of the ‘Personalised Political’

Judi Atkins, from the University of Leeds discusses personalised politics within the context of Ed Miliband's leadership.

Since the 2014 local and European elections, Ed Miliband’s public image and communication skills have come under renewed scrutiny from the Labour Party and the media alike.[1] Although he employs the same narratives of modernisation – party traditions, ‘new times’ and national renewal – that Tony Blair and Harold Wilson once used to great effect, Miliband has failed to convey his policies and vision in a way that resonates with the electorate. So, what’s gone wrong for the Labour leader? In a forthcoming article in Politics, I argue that part of the answer lies in Britain’s increasingly populist ‘rhetorical culture’, in response to which Miliband offers himself as the embodiment of Labour’s modernising narratives. This strategy has given rise to a solipsistic ideology that is unable to conceive of an audience beyond itself. Labour must therefore imagine a wider audience, and adapt its language accordingly, if it is to secure victory in 2015.             

In arguing for One Nation, Miliband makes references to luminaries from his party’s history, notably Clement Attlee and William Beveridge who, though a Liberal, was a key architect of the welfare state. This enables him to locate his approach within Labour’s traditions, reaffirm his commitment to its core principles, and cultivate his leadership character by allying himself with pioneering figures from its past. Such appeals to tradition are designed to reassure supporters that the One Nation agenda is in harmony with the party’s ideological heritage, and that modernisation will not come at the cost of Labour’s soul.

A second narrative stresses the necessity of breaking with Labour’s past, to which end Miliband characterizes the present as ‘new times’. This is achieved through an ideological periodisation, which proceeds from the assumption that the certainties of the New Labour era were swept away by the global financial crisis of 2008. These developments render New Labour’s approach outdated and, if it is to meet the challenges of ‘new times’, Miliband contends that his party must be bolder in its efforts to realise its core values. He thus frames ideological revisionism as Labour’s only option, while laying the foundations for a radical programme of national renewal.        

Labour’s ultimate goal is to rebuild Britain as One Nation. In Miliband’s words: 

 I didn’t become leader of the Labour Party to reinvent the world of Disraeli or Attlee. But I do believe in that spirit. That spirit of One Nation. One Nation: a country where everyone has a stake. One Nation: a country where prosperity is fairly shared. One Nation: where we have a shared destiny, a sense of shared endeavour and a common life that we lead together. That is my vision of One Nation. That is my vision of Britain.[2]

Here, Miliband seeks to win assent by inspiring his listeners with the prospect of a better future for Britain, one that contrasts starkly with the divided society he claims the Coalition’s policies have created.

In the above extract, Miliband articulates ‘One Nation’ in terms of his personal beliefs. For John Gaffney and Amarjit Lahel, this is an example of the ‘personalised political’, which involves ‘bringing the self in some way into responses to wider issues’[3] and so affords the speaker a populist means of inviting an audience to identify with their values and interests. More than this, however, Miliband’s leadership ‘character’ supplies a point of coalescence for the three Labour narratives, as I demonstrate next.
By aligning himself with historical party figures, Miliband offers himself as the present embodiment of Labour traditions. Although he acknowledges the achievements of New Labour, Miliband rejects as ill-suited to ‘new times’ those aspects of its approach – notably the disregard for the duties of those at the top of society – that are contrary to his own principles. Meanwhile, ‘Old’ Labour’s way is discarded due to its neglect of rights and responsibilities per se, which again runs counter to Miliband’s values[4] though he endorses its commitment to collective endeavour. Miliband is therefore positioned within, and in opposition to, aspects of Labour’s ideological heritage by virtue of his personal convictions. In the same vein, his commitment to inclusion and social justice provides a basis from which to criticise the ‘unfair’ policies of the Coalition. The three narratives thus converge within Miliband’s leadership persona, creating a self-referential rhetoric with limited appeal beyond Labour’s core supporters.

According to Simon Danczuk MP, Labour has ‘become too comfortable with talking to ourselves, with policy announced through set-piece speeches’.[5] Such addresses are characterised by the epideictic genre of rhetoric, whereby audience members are assigned the role of spectators who are there to ‘experience the affirmation of values’.[6] However, this type of rhetoric serves only to reinforce the existing identification between the Labour leadership and the party faithful, and so is unlikely to persuade a sceptical electorate to think of itself as belonging to that community. To address this, Labour needs to rely less on appeals to its own values and traditions (as embodied in Miliband’s leadership character), and instead conceive of an audience beyond the Party and adapt its rhetoric accordingly. Many of Labour’s policy proposals are proving popular with the public; the challenge is to communicate them in a way that resonates with this wider audience.

Judi Atkins is a Research Fellow at the University of Leeds where her research interrogates the interface between political theory and British party politics. This is orientated around leadership, rhetoric, and ideologies.

[1] Simons, Ned (2014) ‘European Elections: Ed Miliband Doesn’t Appeal to Voters And Party “Unforgivably Unprofessional”, Says Labour MP’, The Huffington Post UK, 23 May. Watt, Nicholas (2014) ‘Ed Miliband must go if we lose election – Labour frontbencher’, Guardian, 20 June.
[2] Miliband, Ed (2012) Speech to the Labour Party Conference, 2 October.
[3] Gaffney, John and Lahel, Amarjit (2013) ‘Political Performance and Leadership Persona: The UK Labour Party Conference of 2012’, Government and Opposition, 48, pp. 481-505.
[4] Miliband, Ed (2013) Speech to the Fabian Society New Year Conference, 12 January.
[5] Danczuk, Simon (2014) ‘“Mantra of misery” is a fool’s policy: Labour won’t win election by fighting defensively’, Mail on Sunday, 18 May.
[6] Finlayson, Alan (2012) ‘Rhetoric and the Political Theory of Ideologies’, Political Studies 60 (4), pp. 751-767.


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