Undercover at David Miliband’s eve of voting rally.
I never like answering my phone in my sleep and especially not to a shrill and excited voice, unfathomable for the early hour of a bank holiday Monday. Yes I was definitely coming, yes I knew where it was, and no I didn’t need any help getting there.
This was the third time someone from David Miliband’s hyperbolic Movement for Change had been in touch that weekend. Despite answering with my real name, they would ask to speak to “Alex” every time, but I’d long given up putting the phone on the desk for thirty seconds while I went to “find him”.
The event was meant to be a culmination of training “future leaders”, a “wonk school” if you will. Out of mere curiosity at what the enemy were up to, I signed up on the website with my legal name Alexander for more information back in July. I was now being pestered at alarming rate. The sense of desperation at getting as many people as possible to Miliband’s rally was starting to show. The event was meant to be a congregation of all the activists the campaign have trained over the summer - allegedly over a thousand, but I for one had certainly not achieved my level one community organiser’s badge.
Most normal people wouldn’t choose to give up hours of their bank-holiday weekend to go mingle with Milband’s new model army, but with ten days of stubble and a Che Guevara t-shirt to mask me, what was the worst that could happen?
My mind was made up by a final reminder text, to which I replied “do I need to bring anything?” The reply of “just enthusiasm” made me cringe and yet somehow feel hopeful at the same time. “Enthusiasm” and the Labour leadership race have rarely been seen in a sentence together. I printed out my ticket and was asked to write my own unique ticket number, 505, on it, but a frantic follow up email asked me to change that to 1005. What a masterful piece of spin, curiously first used by another movement for change, the Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (the German Workers' Party who would soon become the Nazis).
Despite being an obvious right-winger, hanging around Westminster enough, you end up meeting hacks and pole-climbers of all parties, so with a last check of my new side-parting, I put my flatmate’s glasses and entered Westminster’s grand Emmanuel Centre and approached the desk. Of course there was no record of ticket 1005. Given I knew the coordinator at one of the desks further down, having to spell out my surname wasn’t particularly helpful. Eventually I was found and ticked and given a little green sticker. No one would give me an answer to what the orange ones were for, but the micro-managing had begun.
I was quickly sent upstairs, guided past a silent brass band, and as a proud member of Lambeth Constituency Labour Party herded into the South London section of the audience. Strangely my constituency comrades hadn’t seen me around before, but that wasn’t to stop a friendly chit-chat ensuing. I was new to the constituency of course, but my neighbour on the left didn’t seem particularly involved either. He hadn’t had any Community Organiser training either, nor had the person next to him, or his mum, or in fact anyone sitting around me.
Scanning around the room there was undoubtedly an impressive turn out, but as even Miliband supporters noted there was a distinct lack of young people. The room was full of “Future Leaders” most of whom were much older than their hopeful messiah. The surroundings could not be more appropriate. For someone trying to escape the title of being heir to “St Tony”, the home to the Emmanuel Evangelical Church, was a interesting choice of venue. Everywhere the eye looked was a combination of Miliband’s elongated slogans and overt new-age Christianity. Bringing Labour together, Leading Labour to... redemption?
The atmosphere had the feel of a church congregation full of anticipation. Jim Murphy gave a panto style warm up, the audience fully embracing the “Are you ready... I can’t hear you” banter while stylish female spinners and handlers looked on from the corner of the stage with awkward, embarrassed smiles.
As the pre-game warm up continued the brass band played, the rainbow flags were waved and various handpicked Miliband supporters were paraded across the stage to cheers. A dire duet by MPs Willie Bain and Stella Creasy who narrated the story of the Labour Party like teachers at a school play was not enough to dampen spirits. The fervour amongst the audience was growing, with a rapturous response every time the word “ConDem” was mentioned. I was beginning to think this could turn into a Mid-West evangelical roof raiser, with people having visions and speaking in tongues, running up and down the aisles at any moment. And then it did.
One man stood up singing, shouting, screaming and began to run toward the stage, suddenly whole rows of black women were singing and clapping and screaming “we want David”. It was a practiced routine and a whole block of the audience knew the words to their song. Suddenly I realised what the orange stickers meant. It seems the Movement for Change has been working rather closely with London Citizens, a grassroots community group that have come under attack from being left-wing extremists but also have had praise heaped upon them by no less than David Cameron and Steve Hilton.
Suddenly the “grassroots” effect began to tarnish, clearly Miliband was taking a leaf out of the Obama book, this was a “movement” not a rally, this was about ordinary people not him, yet he needed the help of a well-funded and well organised group to flood his “movement” with room-meat. The facade had slipped and given the speed at which a glamorous blonde staffer was running around, the team knew this. She ran so fast to the back of the room to work out what to do, that her DM4Leader badges were peeling off her silk dress.
Order was restored and suddenly there was piano playing a ConDem ballard. Sob stories by Assistant Regional Inclusion Managers for unions were told over what sounded uncannily like the “Lonely Man” theme from the end of The Incredible Hulk. One man actually said the ConDem cuts were going to kill him.
And then suddenly there he was, David, the golden child. He actually kissed a baby as he walked in less than three feet from where I was standing. He had the pointing-at-people-you-pretend-to-know-in-the-audience trick down to a tee and I even got to touch the chosen one’s hand. No religious experience for me, though I did feel a little breathless from the unending standing ovations and cheering and wooing during the speech. When in Rome.
We were treated to Miliband’s vision, a vision of the “Good Society” where people, not politicians were in control. Communities were going to be empowered, localism rules the day, but this was not the Big Society. Don’t you dare even think this could possibly be an overlap with the evil ConDems. No this was different, this was Miliband’s Jerry Maguire “help me help you” moment. It was as if Cameron had talked about the Big Society in 2005 when he was standing for leader rather than deploying it as a last minute election grenade that he forgot to pull the pin on.
It was a competent speech, polished, no notes and even attempted a little self-deprecation about the justified mocking he had received for his “how to organise a drinks party” briefing. The joke was on David though, through his desperation to not be seen as a micro-manager and instead an empowerer, he managed to show just what a micro-manager he is.
Impressive at first, the whole Movement for Change is a fraud, a room full of community organisers who weren’t just there because Miliband had empowered them; they were Community Organisers and charity workers while he was still carrying bags for Tony Blair. Where were these thousands personally trained by the Movement for Change? It was telling that he ended his speech begging the audience to join Labour.
It was clear he wanted it to be an Obama style event, swaths of the audience were waiting for an Obama style event but, cometh the hour, the man was nowhere to be seen. In the end it was nothing more than a tacit endorsement for David Cameron’s Big Society which his speechwriters have clearly had a selective browse. The Good Society, the Big Society, whatever you want to call it, if Miliband wins, there is hope that common ground can be found on the reining in of the state. This all could have been said without the charade though.
A hack I knew, had started to make intrigued eye contact, I began to think my game was up, and besides the show was drawing to a close. I made a dash for the exit. As I stood outside reading the confirmation I had been rumbled on Twitter, a man clocked my Che t-shirt. “You don’t see many of those anymore, we’ve all got them though.” A Chinese man next to him, with a green sticker on, said “the best thing my father ever did was sign me up to the Labour Party and the Chinese Communist Party on my 16th Birthday.”
It was no surprise that these old-timers felt more comfortable outside smoking than with the stage-managed intensity inside and conversation quickly turned to great left-wing leaders. It was a deeply surreal experience for me to hear Chairman Mao praised in such lavish term, Castro had to be expected though. Thankfully there wasn’t much expectation that David Miliband would join these greats, a mere shrug when I asked. He could give the Chinese Communist party a run for their money on the organisational front though.
Wednesday, 8 September 2010
Undercover at David Miliband’s eve of voting rally.