The Phenomenology of Fools: Ed Miliband’s Downfall

By Sam Thompson

At around 1:00 am on Thursday morning, BBC One was the TV equivalent of an airport. Transition was imminent but not yet confirmed, and the electorate gazed on, with a mixture of apprehension and boredom, like passengers waiting for their boarding gate to appear. There was a fair amount of filler, including Jeremy Vine re-articulating the exit polls via various Green Screen worlds. Those involved comported themselves with differing degrees of insincerity, from the detached whimsy of David Dimbleby to the half-arsed contrition of Peter Kellner – director of YouGov’s disastrous polls.

At this point, Labour was still in denial. So when Dimbleby asked Yvette Cooper why people hadn’t opted for Labour’s plan, her response was predictably glib, the language and cadence indistinguishable from every other politician and pundit. But there was one telling moment. Amid the terrified bluster of “these are only exit-polls”, Cooper admitted her shock, saying that the projected results did not accord with what she “encountered on the doorstep”. She couldn’t reconcile the data with her own experience.

During their campaign, Labour was increasingly scared of the facts, and eschewed them in favour of subjectivity. It’s a phenomenological approach – the philosophical method associated with Martin Heidegger and Jean Paul-Sartre. But, unlike the politics of Heidegger (far-right) and Sartre (far-left), Ed Miliband’s phenomenological rhetoric propelled him into a toxic centrism.

Why abandon the facts? For the father of phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, scientific facts alone can never provide a complete picture of reality. All facts (and all science) need to be grounded in our subjective consciousness. While we often feel desperate for explanations, Husserl says what we should really be striving for is descriptions that articulate the structure of experience. More significantly, we need to describe our shared subjectivity, to distil the universal elements in our experience of the world. A botched attempt at this sort of description was ever-present in Miliband’s campaign. At the leaders’ debate, Miliband tried to describe, with his limited, please-all vocabulary, the sensation of economic fragility that accompanies precarious employment; he then appealed to the public’s empathy, “You may not be on a zero-hours contract, but one of your neighbours will be”.

This foundation allowed the Labour leader to concentrate on living standards rather than the deficit. The ‘cost of living crisis’ is the ultimate rubric of phenomenological politics. The appeal is this: do you feel poorer, more vulnerable? Do you feel in crisis? At one point in the campaign, the downgrading of the deficit to a secondary priority was so detested by the mainstream media that it seemed almost radical. This absurdity reached its height when Jon Snow interviewed Miliband after his infamous deficit-mind-blank conference speech. Snow wouldn’t let the forgetfulness slip, and Miliband made the point – forcefully – that other things were more important than the deficit.

There might be a radical argument for abandoning the political and economic facts. Maybe the word ‘fact’ is just a way of esteeming an idea that’s favourable to the dominant ideology. As any precocious undergrad will tell you, there are no neutral facts. This attitude was present in Miliband’s interview with Evan Davis. Davis started the exchange by presenting a series of the coalition government’s achievements regarding jobs, crime and education. “You can bring forward all sort of statistics”, Miliband replied, “but they don’t fit with people’s day-to-day experiences”. The facts were sullied because they were produced by the machinery of power – probably a Tory-backed think-tank. Here, the primacy of experience allowed Miliband to counter the ideological formation of facts.

But not all facts are created in an ideological vacuum that favours the Tories. Early on, Miliband gave up on the economic argument because he believed the Tories had successfully cemented the narrative of Labour’s irresponsible profligacy. But the facts were in Labour’s favour. Austerity failed by the Tories’ own standards: GDP per capita only recuperated to pre-crash levels in 2014, three years later than they promised, and the UK saw the second slowest recovery of the G7 nations by the same metric. Labour should have adduced data about the uselessness of austerity with triumph at every opportunity and made the point that the Tories’ pursuit of austerity was an ideological mission, not one based on the empirical evidence. Instead, they accepted the Tory narrative and drew the public’s attention towards other issues – ‘Do you feel like you’re waiting longer at A&E?’. The electorate’s concerns and priorities (focus group facts) are also in Labour’s favour. If Labour cared to look at this data with courage, they’d see a public that, while far from communistic, doesn’t like greed entering areas of life they feel everyone should have access to. So, no to PFIs, no to outsourcing in schools and prison; re-nationalise the railways and, at a push, utilities. This doesn’t fit well with triangulation strategy, the great, dormant dogma of the Labour party, which states the left must tack right to win power.

Since Miliband’s resignation, candidates for Labour leader have addressed party members through advertisement-style videos, speaking in vapid entrepreneurial slogans, redolent of the worst of Blair. Let’s not give up on the phenomenological approach. The new cabinet fulfils the Conservative’s implicit manifesto pledge that disabled people, the unemployed and immigrants will be hit hardest in the next five years. If the left is to make opposition to these attacks a popular movement, we must develop a sensitivity towards others with radically difficult ‘life-worlds’ (to use Husserl’s term). Articulating subjectivity builds empathy. This requires finding marginalised voices and drawing them into the discourse so the experience of exploitation, poverty and persecution is made flesh.

Meanwhile, we must not abandon the facts. They are, more often than not, written in red.

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