Late to the Party

In his new book, Ed Miliband’s speechwriter calls for a new politics of equality and community. Where has he been for the past five years?

Plum-picking season, 1942. Credit: Bill Brandt / Picture Post / Archive / Getty Images.

Marc Stears worked as Ed Miliband’s speechwriter in the 2015 general election. On this experience, he offers the novel insight that ‘politics is a tough business, and there were all kinds of ups and downs.’ Out of the Ordinary, although a thoughtful and intelligent book, is equally unlikely to raise many eyebrows.

Stears issues a familiar enough call for a third way between the transformative ambitions of left and right, based on traditions of local attachment, civic pride, and democratic humanism forgotten since 1945. He refreshingly avoids the militaristic myths of the Second World War, acknowledging the terror and anxiety that the experience entailed. Instead, he grounds his argument in a cultural canon of the 1930s and 1940s, writing sensitively on how J. B. Priestley, Dylan Thomas, Laurie Lee, photographer Bill Brandt, and curator Barbara Jones found solutions to a discordant age in the prosaic, suburban, and parochial.

In the Home Front and its collective resilience, Stears identifies ‘the magic of the mundane’: from the ‘little ships’ that salvaged Dunkirk to Thomas’s radio broadcasts on his Welsh childhood, which allowed for a conjuring of shared memories that stabilised the world when it appeared most unsteady. As artists were drawn into wartime propaganda efforts, Thomas’s film-making and Bill Brandt’s images pieced together a national story from local and everyday moments.

Somewhat paradoxically, Stears criticises the Attlee government for its reckless top-down modernisation which missed the opportunity to realise politically this ideal of democratic eclecticism, while the 1951 Festival of Britain, which the same government oversaw, is praised as its apotheosis, celebrating a Britain of eccentricity, pleasure-seeking, and personal liberty.

Stears claims that this particular vision is now ‘almost entirely discarded’. On becoming party leader, Miliband proposed a ‘responsible’ capitalism, drawing on Disraeli’s ‘One Nation’ ideas of social integration. In 2020, the ‘Labour Together’ report called for a ‘robust story of community and national pride.’ In reality, this tendency — a limply patriotic communitarianism — has been present on the left for over a decade, but has demonstrably not been enough to catch the imagination.

Stears lumps together ‘nationalism, socialism, communism’ as ‘abstract beliefs’ and preoccupations exclusively of ‘the British elite’. But socialism in the interwar years was as much a practical concern of ordinary workers and organisers — and restless bohemians like Dylan Thomas — as of detached Oxbridge pontificators.

Stears himself notes that ‘By the time the war broke out, Britain had a full and stimulating socialist community scattered throughout the country’ due to left reading groups, trade unions, writers, and journalists. By contrast, his chosen canon — although expounding the values of ‘ordinary people’ — were themselves extraordinary artists and cultural workers. This highlights the folly of drawing a strict line between the ideas of the ‘elite’ and the ‘ordinary’, or suggesting that the neighbourly solidarity lauded here has nothing to do with socialism as a set of principles.

Stears is entirely correct to claim that ‘people going about their daily lives possess all the insight, virtue, and determination required to build a good society’. We continue to see this in the growth of localist initiatives for community support, greater public space, and less alienated working lives. But we have also seen that insight and determination can do little on its own against a political structure geared to defend the entrenched interests of wealth and power.

Even the milquetoast reformism of Ed Miliband — like Corbyn, a union-backed shock winner against a technocratic heir apparent — saw him immediately attacked as ‘Red Ed’, a crypto-communist threat to national security and stability. Corbyn’s own victory, enabled by grassroots members, offered a channel for input and engagement by ordinary people, reflected in the thousands who turned out at public rallies and the resurgence of interest from formerly disengaged voters.

But this potential ran headlong into a brick wall of party bureaucracy, unprecedented media mudslinging, and smug exhortations from the liberal commentariat. Where was this eulogising of the ordinary back then?

It feels churlish to criticise a book with such earnest intentions, endearing autobiographical touches, and warmth toward its subject. But the extent of our current crisis requires more than shared memories and appreciation of the everyday. The ideals admirably detailed here cannot thrive without materialist analysis and material support.

Out of the Ordinary: How Everyday Life Inspired a Nation and How It Can Again by Marc Stears is published by Belknap Press.

About the Author

Rhian E. Jones grew up in South Wales and is now based in London, where she writes on history, politics, popular culture, and the places where they intersect.