Ed Miliband, the imperceptible icon

The Labour leader gives people nothing to cling to – so protest votes go elsewhere

I celebrated Manchester United’s historic 20th league title as any nerd would, by watching Newsnight. I was struck by the argument between Paul Nuttall (MEP for Ukip) and Labour’s Shadow Immigration Minister Chris Bryant as they argued with the Romanian Ambassador over how many more Eastern European immigrants we might expect next January. To be honest I was only half paying attention; I was more listening to what they weren’t saying.

Ukip’s position is clear. As of next January, the entire population of Bulgaria and Romania will move to the UK, taking up jobs, benefits, school places, parking spaces, fantasy league points and who knows what else from honest-to-goodness, God-fearing white Englishmen. They’re wrong, and as usual when a Ukip MP has their mouth open I actually thought Paul Nuttall came off as paranoid, slightly racist and disingenuous about their motives. At the time I tweeted:

And despite my limited number of followers it was still getting retweets this morning.

It’s easy to criticise Ukip. We know their stance on everything, we know their position on the political spectrum – to the right of the Nasty Party, not quite as far right as the BNP and Combat 18 (yet) – and we can imagine a Ukip parliament without stretching our imagination or resorting to narcotics. In fact, I received this reply showing that some people have no trouble visualising a Ukip government at all!

In the New Statesman’s centenary edition Tony Blair contributed an essay on the need for Labour to become more than just a protest vote. Since then, several prominent members of the Blairite circle jerk have appeared in the media with a similar message – the gist being that Miliband has no solid policy message.

And that’s what I was thinking about whilst luxuriating in the afterglow of Van Persie’s stunning hat-trick last night. Chris Bryant had no answers, no solutions, no responses beyond some vehement pooh-poohing. Extending that line of thought, no one can even picture what the next Labour government will look like, and Labour seems to be alone in that problem. We can guess what sort of government every other party will form, whether we think they may be good or bad, with the exception of Labour. They don’t even register as a protest vote, because no one wants to vote for a void.

A Conservative government in 2015 would give us more (or less, depending on your place in society) of the same. Rightly or wrongly, I think the perception of Liberals is that they would be similar to the Conservatives, but a watered-down version – Nick Clegg is likely to flip-flop on any given issue the first time a goose goes boo. Going to extremes, I think people would even be able to picture a BNP government. We know who Nick Griffin is, we know what he stands for, we can picture life under him. It wouldn’t be a life that decent people wanted to lead, but at least voters can make an informed choice about Nick Griffin, or even about Nick Clegg for that matter.

And that single issue belies Ed Miliband’s problem. We don’t know who he is, or what he stands for. For fans of The West Wing, this is the point at which Josh decides he needs more help to get Matt Santos’ campaign on track and let the public know who Matt Santos is. We don’t know Labour policies and we don’t know Labour solutions, and another chorus of, “look what the Tories are doing, isn’t it horrid, mind you we’ll probably have to do some of it” is not enough.

I’m no fan of Ukip and initially I was surprised that they picked up the votes they did. But when I thought about it, maybe I can see why some people see them as the protest vote against the Conservatives. You wouldn’t vote for Clegg; you certainly wouldn’t vote for Griffin; and a vote for the Greens, as laudable as that is, barely registers as a protest. So who does that leave you with?

Frederick Forsyth’s 1996 novel Icon describes a plot by the British and American security forces to stop a crooked Russian presidential candidate from winning the general election. The problem, as our heroes realise, is not discrediting Igor Komarov, the candidate – he’s deeply racist and in bed with the Russian Mafia – so much as filling the resultant void. Komarov’s campaign is so well funded (albeit by criminals) that every person in Russia feels like they know him personally. Our heroes must find an icon – a uniting figurehead, a symbol in which the Russian people can find comfort, hope, inspiration and strength, because once the incumbent is deposed a vacuum cannot be allowed to exist instead.

So, back to my previous question: who is the protest vote for those disenfranchised with phony austerity measures, with flimflam politicking, with racism disguised as policy? Who is the alternate figurehead? Unfortunately, currently, it’s difficult to see Ed Miliband as that person. He is an imperceptible icon, not quite Dr. Jack Griffin but still someone who manages to have a massive public image and be leader of a political party — and yet no-one can tell us anything about him.

In what way would you like to disagree with me?

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