There’s been a lot of comment on Ed Miliband’s speech the other day. My own reactions have been mixed. I first saw it in terms of a conversation rather than a declamation. Then I interpreted what I called a soundpeck – “something for something” – as an example of Miliband turning his back on the very long tradition of socialist altruism (“from each according to their ability, to each according to their need”) (though I imagine someone out there will point out that such an idea has nothing to do with altruism).
A lot of the negative comment seems to focus not only on the content of the speech but – perhaps “more importantly” – its delivery. And I wonder if there aren’t comparisons which we can make with new art and literature – and their initial reception. Don’t you ever remember having the experience of seeing a film or reading a book – and not being able to quite capture its wavelength? One dear example I recall is the brilliant film “White Hunter Black Heart”, whose critical reception was almost as high as it can get but whose box office performance was pretty dismal. I recall the film so well precisely because I watched it with my wife – and her response was: “How slow!” Yet, I luxuriated in its measured rhythm; and its references to John Huston and “The African Queen” were a movie buff’s delight.
I’m sure it is a film which will stand the test of time.
Another piece of industrial art which had the exact opposite initial reaction is Hitchcock’s “Psycho”:
Initial reviews of the film were thoroughly mixed. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times wrote, “There is not an abundance of subtlety or the lately familiar Hitchcock bent toward significant and colorful scenery in this obviously low-budget job.” Crowther called the “slow buildups to sudden shocks” reliably melodramatic but contested Hitchcock’s psychological points, reminiscent of Krafft-Ebing’s studies, as less effective. While the film did not conclude satisfactorily for the critic, he commended the cast’s performances as “fair”. British critic C. A. Lejeune was so offended that she not only walked out before the end but permanently resigned her post as film critic for The Observer. Other negative reviews stated, “a blot on an honorable career”, “plainly a gimmick movie”, and “merely one of those television shows padded out to two hours.” [...]
Meanwhile, box office behaved as follows:
The public loved the film, with lines stretching outside of theaters as people had to wait for the next showing. It broke box-office records in Japan, China and the rest of Asia, France, Britain, South America, the United States, and Canada, and was a moderate success in Australia for a brief period. It is one of the largest-grossing black-and-white films and helped make Hitchcock a multimillionaire and the third-largest shareholder in Universal. Psycho was, by a large margin, the top moneymaking film of Hitchcock’s career, earning $11,200,000.
In the first case I mention, then, the box office was poor and the critical reception was grand. In the second case, however, the critics initially misunderstood the film – and yet the public, unbound by a stuffy attachment to the permissible, loved the transgressive nature of Hitchcock’s art. So much so that the critics were eventually forced to change their judgement.
Now I’m not saying Ed Miliband has succeeded where Hitchcock did decades before: transgression is not quite where most British politicians are to be found these days. But I do think, in an analogous way, that – in his recent speech at Party Conference – Ed Miliband was at least attempting to break certain moulds in quite a courageous manner. The very fact that many people felt obliged to criticise his delivery – and not see his register as conversational rather than traditionally declamatory – does make me wonder if this poor man doesn’t have the hardest job in politics: to sell grassroots collaboration to a political party wary of, and thus resistant to, all such similar promises.
A political party which claims to be the very essence of grassroots politics – and then consistently finds itself in search of yet another charismatic group of fixers.
A political party which could be perfectly positioned to create a new kind of political, social and business environment (as, indeed, Miliband in his speech promised to fight on behalf of) – and yet which generally finds itself dodging and fudging the most insistent contradictions and incongruences inhabiting its core.
Is Ed Miliband’s speech going to be a Hitchcockian achievement? Misunderstood on its first outing by those who claim to know – yet generally, in the future, to be well received by those who can only vote? Battling against those “vested interests” which make economies in their own image and for their own purposes is an issue he is courageous to raise. In a sense, then, perhaps we could say – with his conversation – that Miliband proposes nothing more nor less than that neo-New Labour I was unhappy with the other day: but in a better and far more constructive register; that is to say, all the unfinished business which New Labour was never brave enough to get round to effecting.
First, Rupert Murdoch.
Next, all kinds of “vested interests”.
Finally (who knows …), both an open democracy for all and a conversational politics which actually works. Which actually makes it possible to sustain adult conversation from generation to generation – in a way that current business, and therefore political, practice would seem to make impossible.
In a sense, I can empathise with Mr Miliband in the context of my blog. I know I get readers – the stats are there for me to see. But, rarely, for some strange reason, do they seem to want to comment. What’s missing from Miliband’s speech, then, is the real dialogue which would make it that conversation I’m convinced he’s looking to have.
All in all, if we’re looking to be reasonably kind, not such a bad week for Miliband. And if I’m right, and he is intelligently – intentionally – pursuing a different kind of politics, the results, whilst taking their time to properly bed down, may still serve to add a significant value at some time in the future.
A footnote to this curate’s egg of a post about what some have called a curate’s egg of a speech. If Miliband is not able – finally – to implement this sea change in the way we do politics, and Cameron was really looking to guarantee his future after the 2015 general election, the latter could do worse than to take note of the lessons of Miliband’s strategy. For in conversational politics, there’s far more of a future – and far more of the 21st century – than the traditional mode we’ve all been used to till now.