Joyce McMillan: Labour still learning from 1992

Life imitating art is an old cliché but for Ed Miliband and his cohorts, there is truth in it nonetheless,writes Joyce McMillan
The Absence of War is, for the Labour Party, a remarkably prescient warning for next months electionThe Absence of War is, for the Labour Party, a remarkably prescient warning for next months election
The Absence of War is, for the Labour Party, a remarkably prescient warning for next months election

THE general election is approaching. The polls make it too close to call and, in the camp of the Labour leader, all is tension and unease. The leader himself is an intelligent, charismatic and thoughtful man, but his minders are constantly on the alert to prevent him from saying anything that will conflict with the party’s carefully sculpted array of soundbites and slogans, shaped through months of focus-group consultation.

As a result, the party too often seems to be echoing the economic “wisdom” of the Tory government it opposes,.

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And meanwhile, at Prime Minister’s Questions, the leader often seems hesitant, unable to score even in front of an open Tory goal.

This is not, though, the general election campaign of 2015, as it circles around this week’s first great television debate – it’s the plot of Sir David Hare’s 1993 play The Absence Of War, playing this week at the Citizens’ Theatre in Glasgow, to roars of recognition and applause.

Written after Hare spent an intense few months travelling with the Neil Kinnock inner circle in the run-up to the 1992 election defeat, the play presents a carefully fictionalised version of the Labour Party of two decades ago; the imagined leader, George Jones, is neither Neil Kinnock nor John Smith, but a 55-year-old bachelor with a passion for theatre, a strong Yorkshire accent, and an early childhood shadowed by the Second World War.

Yet what’s stunning about the play – which is being presented by Headlong of London exactly as it was written 22 years ago – is the astonishing precision and foresight with which it identifies the sources of weakness that continue to plague the Labour party today, and which have almost certainly led to the present apparent Labour collapse in Scotland.

The first of these weaknesses, for example, has to do with the growing gulf between traditional Labour values and the type of economy Britain has developed since the 1970s, heavily dependent for its apparent buoyancy on a huge financial sector – one of the biggest laughs in the play comes when the minders forcefully urge George never to let the voters dwell on the fact that, as prime minister, he would be in charge of their money.

For voters rightly sense that, while the Tories are generally comfortable with this historic economic shift – recruiting extensively from the financial sector, and accepting large and influential donations from it – Labour is much less at ease with it, awkwardly torn between uncritical support (the hallmark of the Blair/Brown era) and a more sceptical approach.

As a result, in the absence of a clear economic alternative, voters tend to rate Labour as less “economically competent” than the Tories – although, as the events of 2008 showed, competence has very little to do with it.

And the continuing power of this idea was reflected with great clarity in this week’s row over the famous letter from 100 business leaders maintaining that Tory policy is best for the country; an unsurprising letter, with some questionable signatories in terms of tax avoidance and low pay, that was nonetheless presented, on the BBC and elsewhere, as major evidence of Labour’s economic weakness, and hostility to “business”.

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Then, beyond Labour’s supposed economic incompetence, the play also exposes two other familiar problems: the relentless hostility of large sections of the media, and – more subtly – the peculiar but intense cultural conservatism at the heart of the British state, the constant harking back to the “finest hour” of the Second World War, the recurrent references to Churchill and Hitler, the mystical deference to the monarchy, the continuing military cult of British greatness.

The play begins and ends with a brilliantly-realised image of the annual Remembrance Day service at the Cenotaph, the greatest remaining ritual of the British state.

And interestingly, it is this final strand of insight in Hare’s play that seems most prescient of all, in 2015; it almost seems to predict the series of wars into which Britain has been drawn since 1993, the role of those wars in undermining many of the hopes which surrounded the election of the Blair government in 1997, and the continuing battles over EU membership and Trident – in the play, George denounces Trident as both useless and immoral, to roars of approval from the Glasgow audience, but knows he can never say this in public.

And of course, it also explains – for anyone interested enough to take note – the reasons why hundreds of thousands of centre-left Scottish voters, over the last decade, have gradually been shifting their allegiance towards the SNP.

After all, if the party you used to support cannot say that it opposes Trident, then why not vote for a party that can?

And if Labour at Westminster is forced, for electoral reasons, to troop into the lobbies to support the government’s austerity policies, then why not vote for a party, in Scotland, that is at least able to mention the possibility – strongly supported by a clear majority of senior economists this week – that George Osborne’s dogmatic commitment to continued austerity is as economically absurd as it is socially unjust?

David Hare’s play ends, of course, with a historic Labour defeat at Westminster, and with George Jones’s prophetic final cry that the only way Labour will get elected there, in future, is by effectively becoming Tory. And that’s democracy, of course; if enough people honestly believe that the economy is safer in right-wing elite hands, then we will have Tory governments in the UK, whether they are Conservative in name or not.

The Absence Of War reminds us, though, that the once-mighty Labour Party – author of the peaceful British revolution of 1945 – has been the defining tragic victim of this long rightward shift in British politics: forced either to betray its principles and silence its own best passions, or to remain locked out of power.

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And although the SNP is now, north of the Border, the focus of so many of those lost Labour hopes, it should also be looking long and hard, and without complacency, at the fate of British Labour – and asking which of those huge, political-soul-destroying pressures it can truly hope to resist, once it too is drawn into the corrupt and charismatic world of serious Westminster politics.