That great labour historian Edward Thompson in his finest work The Making of the English Working Class wrote, “In 1799 special legislation was introduced “utterly suppressing and prohibiting” by name the London Corresponding Society and the United Englishmen. Even the indefatigable conspirator, John Binns, felt that further national organisation was hopeless… When arrested he was in possession of a ticket which was one of the last ‘covers’ for the old LCS: Admit for the season to the School of Eloquence.”
In the recent past we have lost some of the most eloquent voices on the left, from Stuart Hall to Bob Crowe and probably the greatest of them all Tony Benn. The current criticism of modern political leaders seems to me to be twofold firstly that they are all the same. I have some sympathy with this observation. I saw a photograph of Cameron, Clegg and Miliband last year at the Cenotaph in similar attire and all trying to look respectful. For a moment even an old political hack like me could not tell them apart.
The second and perhaps less well articulated point but even more damaging is that they are inauthentic. Political leadership has always had an element of theatre about it but modern politicians really are bad actors. They are incapable of “feeling our pain” and they speak in a carefully managed language that is completely meaningless. What’s more their experiences are so far away from ours they have no idea what we think or feel anyway. Encapsulated this last week when Ed Miliband had no idea how much his household spent on a weekly shop.
This means that most of us have simply stopped listening to them. Even people who are paid to listen to them like the BBC’s political editor Nick Robinson have the ability to make a government announcement like the bedroom tax, sound like a minor kerfuffle in the Westminster tea shop, rather than the brutal attack on the poor that it really is.
Political discourse has to start with the articulation of representative experience. So when was the last time you heard a Labour leader talk about catching a bus? They just do not sound like normal people. In democratic systems there is a kind of decay. When a new party or movement breaks through it has a broad scope and is full of ideas and talent giving a voice to the previously unheard. Then over time it narrows.
This is understandable the threat to leaders comes from within their own parties so they seek to control who is chosen to represent the party. The gene pool the party draws from gets narrower and narrower and unless the party is truly democratic and has the ability to renew itself eventually it simply collapses.
This is the very dangerous position that Labour finds itself in. Its base is too narrow. The leader and its spokespeople are dull. They speak with out feeling or belief. They are inauthentic.
This is a deeper problem than just policy. Even if they adopted all the policies we would like to hear the wider public cannot hear them. So when an able political actor like Nigel Farage turns up he is like a breath of fresh air.
This is something hard to say - I feel sorry for Nick Clegg. Why? At least he took Farage on and did not just pretend he wasn’t there. In the authenticity stakes however he lost. He made the classic mistake of trying to fight the irrational rationally. You cannot fight emotion with logic.
Labour ought to have been able to capture the anger of those who voted for UKIP. They are not aliens from another planet they are people whose lives have been turned upside down by neo-liberalism and deregulation. They are seeking stability and security and looking for someone to blame for their plight and all they see from the three main parties is more of the same.
Labour however has been unable to break out of the ideological straight jacket that got us into this mess and therefore has no plausible explanation of how to change things. They have been unable to alter the Tories narrative of the recession being caused by excessive debt or that falling living standards are the fault of migrants. These explanations are now the conventional wisdom.
It has also been unable or unwilling to be critical of the past Labour Governments embrace of neo-liberalism. Sadly in this regard Labour has become part of the problem not part of the solution. So we need new voices to harness this anger, to articulate this experience and turn it in a progressive direction that does not attribute the cause of austerity to its victims but attacks the real culprits and does so in a language that everyone can understand.
This may or may not require a new political party but it certainly requires a new School of Eloquence.