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Jul 25, 2011

Miliband, Gillard and the moral posturing ties that bind

In essense, this Ed Miliband/Julia Gillard brand of moral posturing is a substitute for real political vision, writes Brendan O'Neill, editor of Spiked Online.

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Before leaving Britain for Oz, I thought our Labour leader (Ed Miliband) and your Labor leader (Julia Gillard) had next to nothing in common.

Miliband is a bit of a bumbling buffoon, notorious for repeating himself in interviews like a broken Max Headroom. Gillard can at least string a sentence together. Miliband is impeccably middle-class, being the son of Ralph Miliband, the noted Labour Socialist and provider of dinner parties to the New Left inhabitants of the leafy north London suburb of Hampstead. Gillard, I have been informed by three different people since I arrived here, is a “bogan”, more Kath and Kim than coq au vin. Miliband is in opposition, and looks destined to stay there forever. Gillard is in power, however unconvincingly.

They’re poles apart, right? Well, perhaps not. I now know that they have one important thing, or rather vice, in common: a preference for demonology over ideology; for morally posturing against “evil” over putting forward some decent, grounded, visionary political ideas.

Miliband’s declaration of a one-man war against Rupert Murdoch has eerie echoes of Julia Gillard’s one-woman campaign against carbon. In both instances, these increasingly isolated political leaders are partaking in moral grandstanding against an alleged mortal threat to human civilisation. And in both instances their overarching aim is to score some points with at least the media and the chattering classes.

The similarities between their moral campaigns are striking. Both are explicitly seeking to re-invent themselves, to remodel themselves as agents of morality, through their war of words on Murdoch/carbon.

Miliband has openly discussed, sans shame, how his public hectoring of the Murdoch empire following the phone-hacking scandal has helped him to negotiate “the gap between triumph and disaster” in politics. After months of ridicule, he is now, according to a fawning Observer report, “in the ascendancy”. Gillard’s war on carbon, via her carbon-tax plan, may have lost her more friends and backers than it has won her, but she too can bask in the oft-repeated mantra that she is “staking her political future” on this important “mission” (as one newspaper put it).

Their choice of demons to do battle with is striking too. Murdoch and carbon are looked upon by respectable society as black, ugly things, foreign bodies that pollute our otherwise pristine worlds. In Britain, that foreigner Murdoch is seen as the polluter of tabloid readers’ allegedly febrile minds with all manner of poisonous political drivel, while in Australia (and everywhere else) carbon is seen as the polluter of the earth, sky and sea.

These are possibly the perfect entities to declare war on if you want to impress the influential media classes. Walk into any well-heeled cafe in a posh bit of London or a trendy bit of Melbourne, shout out the word “Murdoch” or “carbon”, and watch the patrons drop their lattes in alarm and outrage. Miliband and Gillard want the backing of these easily infuriated folk.

And Miliband and Gillard claim to be taking a political risk on behalf of “the people”. Miliband has said of his anti-Murdoch stance, “You don’t change things without taking risks”. He claims to be representing “people up and down the country”. Gillard says her carbon tax is fuelled (no pun intended) by her belief that “the Australian people” know it is the right thing to do. These moral campaigns allow Miliband and Gillard to circumnavigate the sticky problem of their low levels of popular support, and to claim that somehow, by osmosis maybe, they are acting on behalf of everybody.

In Gillard’s case in particular, the alleged urgency of the carbon crisis allows her to claim she is doing the moral thing even if lots and lots of people disagree with her. Saving Oz — nay, saving the whole of humanity — easily takes priority over listening to what the little people want.

In essence, this Miliband/Gillard brand of moral posturing is a substitute for real political vision. It is their dearth of serious ideas, of any real ideological underpinnings at all, which coaxes them towards creating fantasy battles between good and evil. In Britain and Australia, the corrosion of social democracy, its crisis of substance and its profound disconnect from everyday people, is giving rise to sideshow, overblown battles against ‘orrible forces that offend polite society.

*Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked in London. He is speaking on political correctness at the Centre for Independent Studies’ Big Ideas Forum in Sydney on August 1.

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