On the Inadequacy of Political Profiles

I am incredibly frustrated after having read this essay written by a journalist with exclusive access to the Miliband campaign team. To everyone’s surprise, it reveals that the Labour party political machine is run with the kind of competence, clarity, and consistency seen otherwise in Iannucci’s brilliant political satire  “The Thick of It”.

These “campaign profiles” – can’t wait for the one about Hillary, or the one about Modi – substitute structural and salient political analysis for an inspiring personal narrative and a retelling of the campaign team’s ability or lack thereof to manipulate the media. Yes, this is the truth about politics today. But if you are going to pay someone thousands of pounds to write it up, is it going to get any more interesting? Profiles like this reward the reader with endearing personal details about a leader, or the fact that those around her genuinely consider her a “nice” person, or someone who “believes” in her values, or actually is quite witty and funny when not on television. Instead of being lied to on television, these profiles lie to us in person. In helping us understand the person behind the politician, they help us ignore the politics of the person. The political situation or conjecture that defines and limits a person’s ability to act.

Sure, Behr’s profile talks a lot about the “Blue Labour” vision – which, not to worry, will have its day on here – and Miliband’s ideas about some kind of responsible capitalism. But does it bring up how Rachel Reeve, the Labour Shadow Works and Pensions Secretary, believes that Labour is not a party for those out of work? A revealing comment that highlights that whatever Miliband brings, his party will continue to demonise the poor that it seeks to represent. One can go on and on about these omissions. What does Miliband make of the “structural collapse of the British state”? Whose interests is he representing? Does he have any sense of the class-coalition that can bring about the kind of “responsible capitalism” that he is talking about? Why the hell is Labour still obsessed about austerity when even the IMF has moved on?

Despite whatever the profile tries to sell you, it can’t quite hide that Miliband is a tail being wagged by a rather petulant and pedigreed dog. In fact, it is a wonderful retelling of how this well-intentioned and rather naive “good-guy” has been shoved around and kicked by the British media (or bourgeoisie) for daring not to be Tony Blair. This might be a moment where the empathetic reader would be inclined to feel sorry for him. But much like Obama, Miliband uses his intellectualism and consensus-based approach to simply drift into the role that the British press/bourgeoisie reluctantly allocates him.

To be fair to the journalist – the essay does justice to the incoherence and scatter-brained policies of the Miliband team by refusing to assign a “cause” to him altogether. No one knows how a fight against energy companies will fit with a fight against non-domiciles and how those will fit with a fight against immigrants and a fight against those out of work. In fact, the only cause that he can sustain is “self-belief”. This is perhaps an intentional emphasis by the writer to signal to us that yes, whatever we might say, Ed M is just as full of himself as the others.

Profiles like this are detrimental to our public discourse because they help maintain the “truth” that politics is about personalities, and that if we only knew the personalities then we would know what there is to know about politics. In a sense, Ed’s lack of personality makes him a particularly poor fit for a profile like this because the poor reporter simply has to recount the many ways his leadership has stumbled into parity with the Tories, and how people in his inner circle are genuinely more fascinating than he is.

Ed’s lack of personality is crying out for an investigation into the political economy of the Labour party, the emergence of a corrupt economic consensus that is incorrect even by the terms of Neoclassical economics, and the kind of large institutional changes that will be necessary for any social-democratic political settlement. You can write a great profile and undertake a serious analysis of the political economy and even have it last a hundred and fifty years. This young German journalist in France once did it. Here’s an extract from a dispatch from Paris describing May 1849 [which, incidentally, describes Labour’s campaign and Behr’s write-up quite well]:

“Struggles whose first law is indecision; wild, inane agitation in the name of tranquility, most solemn preaching of tranquility in the name of revolution; passions without truth, truths without passion; heroes without heroic deeds, history without events; development, whose sole driving force seems to be the calendar, wearying with constant repetition of the same tensions and relaxations; antagonisms that periodically seem to work themselves up to a climax only to lose their sharpness and fall away without being able to resolve themselves…”

– Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, 1852


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Filed under Europe, Politics, UK

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