Sep 262010

Yes.  You already know I’m a lapsed Catholic.  So what has this got to do with me?  Wikipedia on what Vatican II really meant to proper Catholics:

“By the spirit of Vatican II” is meant to promote the teachings and intentions of the Second Vatican Council in ways not limited to literal readings of its documents, but not in contradiction to the “letter” of the Council[24][25] (cf. Saint Paul’s phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”).[26]

The spirit of Vatican II is invoked for a great variety of ideas and attitudes. Bishop John Tong Hon of Hong Kong used it with regard merely to an openness to dialogue with others, saying: “We are guided by the spirit of Vatican II: only dialogue and negotiation can solve conflicts.”[27]

In contrast, Michael Novak described it as a spirit that “sometimes soared far beyond the actual, hard-won documents and decisions of Vatican II. … It was as though the world (or at least the history of the Church) were now to be divided into only two periods, pre-Vatican II and post-Vatican II. Everything ‘pre’ was then pretty much dismissed, so far as its authority mattered. For the most extreme, to be a Catholic now meant to believe more or less anything one wished to believe, or at least in the sense in which one personally interpreted it. One could be a Catholic ‘in spirit’. One could take Catholic to mean the ‘culture’ in which one was born, rather than to mean a creed making objective and rigorous demands. One could imagine Rome as a distant and irrelevant anachronism, embarrassment, even adversary. Rome as ‘them’.”[28] Such views of the Second Vatican Council were condemned by the Church’s hierarchy, and the works of theologians who were active in the Council or who closely adhered to the Council’s aspect of reform (such as Hans Küng) have often been criticized by the Church for espousing a belief system that is radical and misguided.

So.  A battle of wills, if nothing else. 

But, of course, Vatican II was much more than a battle of wills.  In the end it was a consummated change of style, a clear change of attitude – in a sense, even a change of hierarchy; a change wrought by a good person who had clearly not been raised to high office with the objective of changing anything. 

More from Wikipedia on John XXIII, the shaker and mover of the Church during Vatican II:

Far from being a mere “stop gap” Pope, to great excitement John called an ecumenical council fewer than ninety years after the Vatican Council. Cardinal Montini remarked to a friend that “this holy old boy doesn’t realise what a hornet’s nest he’s stirring up”.[7] From the Second Vatican Council came changes that reshaped the face of Catholicism: a comprehensively revised liturgy, a stronger emphasis on ecumenism, and a new approach to the world.

Now let us turn to another just as political church of the people.  Ed Miliband has just turned 40 years old.  The similarities with John XXIII are not immediately apparent.  But even so, I do wonder if, in an analogous way, Ed Miliband hasn’t been being installed by certain people as leader of a similarly broad group of believers like the Labour Party, with the expectation that he will do a job in a certain way – in a way not essentially dissimilar to the “stop-gap” and “puppet” John XXIII.

Why do I think this?

Let’s ask the questions.

A broad church in need of a kick up the backside?  A creaking hierarchy which, for far too long, has abused the trust and served itself of a generally ignored grassroots and base?  An ideology in need of comprehensive renovation?

A leadership long in the tooth, tired and hollow?

Yes, I hear you.  Ed Miliband is about as young as any leader can get these days.  Some of his supporters, however, are most decidedly not.

But I shouldn’t be surprised, even so, if – in this second decade of the 21st century – Mr Miliband doesn’t manage to turn this hidebound Labour Party of ours upside down in much the same way that – in the Sixties of the last century – John XXIII did to Catholicism.

Perhaps that wasn’t the reason why many voted for Miliband.  They weren’t looking for a real change-maker – just a man who could dress up the Party comfortably enough to win again.

My intuition does inform me, however, that such an eventuality – the eventuality of profound and persistent internal change – may be just what we get.

Perhaps that explains the moderately muted applause when the Labour leadership conference discovered yesterday which Miliband had won the coveted prize of Labour leader.

It wasn’t because they were disappointed that David hadn’t won.

No.  Disappointment wasn’t the driver.  Rather, I suspect, it was more a gentle lilt of apprehension.

It was, I would suggest, because they all realised that the change Ed Miliband had been airily promising whilst only a candidate would now impact sooner or later on their own precious structures now he had actually become leader. 

Maybe positively, maybe negatively (for them as individuals, I mean – as owners of little Party fiefdoms) – but either way, a change which would need to be understood, managed and negotiated.

Change is always a trying circumstance, whether good or bad, whether constructive or destructive.  And most change, even when it clearly constructs, inevitably destroys something which previously existed.

All those in the hall were in some way Party faithful.

All those outside watching were in some way interested onlookers.

All those in the country who cared to follow the announcement, meanwhile, could only smile and say to themselves: “These are the processes of change we’ve suffered in our workplaces every single day of the past thirteen New Labour years.  Now it’s your turn.  Now you’ll see what it’s like.”

What Ed Miliband promises the Labour Party now is what John XXIII did to the Roman Catholic Church almost half a century ago. 

Stir up that hornet’s nest.

And not a moment too soon.

Sep 262010

There is a difference you know between the “squeezed middle” and the “squeezed middle class”.  President Obama preferred sticking with the latter recently:

President Obama vowed on Monday to “reverse the overall erosion in middle class security” as he stepped up his efforts to reconnect with Americans suffering from a weak economy and high unemployment.

Compare that with this from Ed Miliband this morning:

My aim is to show that our party is on the side of the squeezed middle in our country and everyone who has worked hard and wants to get on. My aim is to return our party to power. This is a tough challenge. It is a long journey. But our party has made the first step in electing a leader from a new generation.

Yet reporting by the mainstream media has consistently chosen to use the extra word “class” in headlines – even where the word has not been reported in the main body of the articles themselves.  (Check out the web address to see how the articles were originally headlined, for that information often gives the game away.)

Here we have the Daily Mail from as long ago as August this year.  Whilst here we even have the Telegraph, publishers of this morning’s article from Miliband, also using the extension “squeezed middle class” instead of the more inclusive “squeezed middle”.  The BBC currently read the language more accurately, although Google’s search pages would indicate that journalistic shorthand and general conceptual carelessness did initially intervene just as much here as is clearly the case elsewhere.

As Paul quite rightly points out:

squeezed middle is not just middle class middle incomes in UK are £13k – £30k #lab10

Interestingly, and to be fair to Sky, they would appear – at least online – to be reporting Miliband to the letter.  Lord knows, they should do, mind: the message has been out there for four months at least.

And we pay journalists to get these things so inexactly inaccurate, do we?

So what conclusions can we draw from all this?  Well.  Firstly, as I said yesterday – don’t underestimate Ed Miliband.  He is hungry to right wrongs.  He is far cleverer than he would appear.  And he is aware of how to play the media game like perhaps no other leading Labourite.  I was proud to vote for Ed Balls because he took the fight to the enemy.  But in doing so, he painted himself into a number of corners of sorts because he was so upfront about his policy-making objectives.  Ed Miliband has made no such mistake.  He has been far more generalist.  If he’d been more specific, he might have won more handsomely – but then he would now have far less room for manoeuvre.

He is, in fact, a populist – and populists are unpredictable.  Populists are unknown quantities.  Populists can change the lie of the playing-field overnight.

What’s more, he’s a populist who believes in his own destiny.  Or, at least, he is beginning to believe.

Ed Miliband has also carefully identified a way of making the middle classes and the working-classes one.  His carefully wrought “squeezed middle” covers us all.  We all feel squeezed.  We all feel in the middle of the pincer grip the Coalition’s partners have set up for us.

That we can all identify with the “squeezed middle” is probably why some of the right-wing media are loosely interpreting it as the “squeezed middle class”.  They know there are votes to be eked out of those hills – and they know Ed Miliband knows how to do it.

“A future fair for all” was the Labour Party’s slogan at the last general election – and it was probably the very best bit of Labour’s campaign.

In the hands of Miliband, that idea and that message may very well come back to haunt the Coalition partners.

The “squeezed middle” has only just been identified.  Now it is our job to ensure everyone knows – we all know – how to belong.

Update to this post: via a tweet just now from Paul Evans, further background to the “squeezed middle” concept can be found here in an article by John Healey.  Whilst a much more comprehensive exploration of the idea from a number of political thinkers, including Healey, can be found in this useful .pdf file from the Open Left project at Demos.