Labour is now comprehensively failing to provide a convincing narrative on a scale bigger even than during Neil Kinnock’s doomed 1992 election campaign, according to the influential playwright David Hare.
In an excoriating analysis of Labour’s leadership, he suggests that Miliband struggles to connect with the public, saying “you can only make a great speech if you have a great analysis”. But he also turns on the entire political class, saying it is their fault that they are now perceived as a “self-interested cartel”.
Hare’s warning, in an essay in the Guardian, comes on the eve of a revival of his seminal 1993 play The Absence of War about a Labour leader struggling to take advantage of the open goals provided by a Tory prime minister.
“Yes, as everyone keeps telling me, this is indeed a timely moment to revive a play about a floundering Labour leader who can’t find the public pulse,” Hare concludes. “And no, since you ask, I haven’t changed a word.”
Hare writes: “Underlying the decline of Labour is a comprehensive failure, far deeper than in 1992, to provide a competing narrative, one that makes the public feel that inequity is not the natural condition of man, and that the mid-century experiment of investing in a benign state that is proud to take responsibility for its own citizens has not been abandoned for no other reason but that it was going so well.”
He writes: “The question you most often hear asked of Miliband, in tones of increasing frustration, is: ‘why, at a time when the public needs it, can Ed not speak in a way that reaches the public? Why can he not shoot at Cameron’s open goal?’”
“Why can he not, in the words of one veteran Labour MP in the play, ‘get up and take the whole rotten thing on?’ But to ask that question is to misunderstand what rhetoric is. Rhetoric is not an add-on, an extra. It’s not a trick, a facility or a gift. The sober truth is that you can only make a great speech if you have a great analysis.”
Hare, who wrote the play after being provided with unprecedented access as a playwright to shadow Kinnock and his entourage in the run-up to the 1992 election, often to the displeasure of other senior Labour figures, adds that while the play was attacked by “a few thuggish Labour loyalists” it had a seminal influence on Tony Blair.
Blair, an early visitor to see the original staging before he became leader at the time, later confided that it confirmed his resolution that he would never allow what he watched happening to George Jones [the name of the play’s fictional Labour leader] to happen to him, according to the playwright. Kinnock, on the other hand, found sitting through the play one of the most difficult experiences of his life, Hare claimed.
Hare also delivers a withering critique of today’s political class, saying that while commentators routinely highlight the public’s anger towards MPs “… what goes unremarked, and is equally damaging, is politicians’ growing contempt for us.
“And yet this anger at the way they are perceived is largely the fallout of a crisis politicians have brought on themselves. It is their own fault that they are seen as just one more self-interested cartel, a professional trade union no more or less significant than any other.”
The new production of The Absence of War runs at the Sheffield Crucible theatre from 6-21 February, then tours until 9 May.
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