David Cameron’s infamous 2015 tweet that we face a choice between stability and strong government under him or chaos with Ed Miliband has long become a joke – a cliché, admittedly, but a good one. In a sense, this is unfortunate because it contains some truth: from a Tory point of view, a Miliband government would indeed have been chaotic.
This isn’t because he too would have unleashed the Brexit clusterfuck. He wouldn’t. Back in 2015 less than 10% (pdf) of voters thought that the EU was the country’s most important issue. Cameron called a referendum not because there was mass pressure for one but to try to silence a handful of cranks in his own party. Miliband wouldn’t have needed to do that.
Instead, he’d have caused “chaos” in three other ways.
First, his administration would have seen policy mis-steps, poor administration and ministerial gaffes: all governments do. Because political reportage lacks perspective, hyper-ventilating reporters would exaggerate these into episodes of grave perils. What Michael Oakeshott wrote in 1962 is perhaps truer now than then: “political life is resolved into a succession of crises.” We’d thus have “chaos” even if it were only about the misuse of paperclips at the Department of Administrative Affairs.
Secondly, the purpose of politics in capitalist society is not to provide good administration. It is to ensure the power and prosperity of the rich. Labour would not have done this as well as the Tories. Its policies (pdf) to tax bank bonuses, clamp down on tax-dodging, support coops and give workers a say on bosses’ pay were all threats to the power of the rich. Of course, they were mild ones: but faced with any threat at all, the over-entitled rich cry like spoilt brats (see Digby Jones, passim).
Remember: the Tories think the 1970s were a time of crisis and chaos. But in fact real wages rose nicely then – by 1.8 per cent per year according to Bank of England data. So where was the crisis? It was in profitability and in militant workers challenging capitalist authority. That’s what matters.
You might have an obvious objection here: doesn’t Brexit threaten profitability? It does. But no more than it threatens wages. Brexit will make us all poorer. For many, though, this doesn’t matter because income and wealth are positional goods (pdf). As Andrew Oswald has said (pdf): “what matters to someone who lives in a rich country is his or her relative income.” For many, Brexit is tolerable because it doesn’t much disrupt relative incomes. What would be intolerable is the threat to the relative incomes of the rich posed by even the mildest of social democrats.
Thirdly, the Tories don’t understand the left*: the fact that some believe Jeremy Corbyn is a Marxist tells us this. This fact alone means that a Labour government would create uncertainty. And we’ve known ever since the work (pdf) of Daniel Ellsberg that people hate uncertainty. A Labour government would thus appear chaotic to Tories even if it looked stable to Labour supporters.
This sense of chaos would be reinforced by something else – that fact that we never see counter-factuals: that’s why they’re called counter-factuals. A world in which Ed Miliband is three years into his premiership would not be one in which there was a Jim Bowen showing voters our current Tory government and saying “here’s what you could have won”. (And even if there were, nobody would believe him.) Nobody would therefore credit Miliband with saving from the Brexit clusterfuck. And the Tories would be able to pose as a credible alternative government. The contrast effect would thus make a Miliband government look bad.
So Cameron was right. A Miliband government would have been “chaotic”. This tells us a lot - although absolutely nothing about Mr Miliband.
* The left doesn’t understand the right either, but that’s not my point here.