Over the last four years the right-leaning papers have exhausted themselves with every attempt to emasculate, embarrass and smear the (now former) leader of the Opposition, Ed Miliband. These attacks only intensified as the recent general election drew nearer. He was called weird, untrustworthy and has regularly been portrayed as a cowardly Brutus-figure for stabbing “his elder brother in the back” after he ran against him for the Labour leadership.
Though this seems to have proved ultimately unsuccessful, Miliband tried to overcome the fact that he cuts a less-than-impressive figure by embracing it. In a speech last year he rejected “photo-op politics” and admitted “You can find people who are more square-jawed. More chiseled. Look less like Wallace… even… people who look better eating a bacon sandwich.” He urged substance over appearance. He was to be the “Happy warrior”. This “Happy warrior” came in contrast to David Cameron, modelling himself on Conservative elder-statesman Harold Macmillan, and Nigel Farage, a beer-swilling, pub-dwelling, twenty-first century John Bull.
This found popular appeal with the social media phenomenon of #Milifandom. The Twitter hashtag was started by 17 year-old girl irate with David Cameron whom she argued was ignoring the concerns of young people. This very quickly became an internet sensation with people posting, what the BBC have called, “some unusual images of the unlikely heart-throb.”
While for some, this was clearly a joke, many reactions were more serious. The girl who originally started the hashtag has become a paid-up member of the Labour Party and some other reactions are showing #Milifandom as resistance to tabloid narratives.
But the Sun, the Mail and the Telegraph continued unabated, attacking the Labour leader right up until the day of the general election. Before the disastrous exit poll, there had been no dramatic shifts in support and even leading Conservative pollster, Lord Ashcroft, said such attacks were failing to convince wavering voters.
Miliband’s struggle to come up with a humble, yet statesman-like variant of masculinity in the face of right-wing denigration has an odd historical parallel. Almost eighty years ago, the anti-fascist left faced a similar dilemma. How could anti-fascist men create their own masculine identity that opposed the imperialism inherent in the notion of the English gentleman, and the ‘new fascist man’ ideal of their arch-enemies?
Britain in the 1930s found itself in a politically polarised Europe and facing the increasing likelihood of war. These “Happy Warriors” of the Left faced far more extreme smears except from the far-right rather than the centre-right. Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists (BUF) was a movement obsessed with masculinity. The BUF’s fascist masculinity was “the ethos of public school masculinity as a political programme” and, like public schools, aimed to create men at the peak of “masculine fitness”. They vitriolically attacked political rivals like the left-leaning liberal Bloomsbury group, a group of writers and artists the BUF saw as “[e]ffeminate [c]owards”. They saw their masculinity as under threat from “the anaemic city clerk, the Bloomsbury poet… and the pale pink politician”.
Anti-fascists reversed this aggressive hyper-masculinity to attack the BUF. For them, such an image was just the ‘for-King-and-Country’ English gentleman on steroids. They perceived in the ‘new fascist man’ the figure of the school bully, “what are Hitler, Mosley or Mussolini like, more than… big backward boys…?” While the BUF looked forward to a world where “[t]he full-blooded virility of the warrior” was put to use “conquering fresh fields”, the anti-fascists repudiated the cult of the hero. At the same time, they did not shirk from fighting for their ideals when it came to it in the Spanish Civil War. The story of the international anti-fascist response to Spain is well known. Many on the anti-fascist left, including poet Stephen Spender and communist and rebellious public school-boy Esmond Romilly, went to fight for the Spanish Republic.
Esmond Romilly, the communist nephew of Winston Churchill who ran away to fight in Spain, wrote that “[n]o attempt is made to romanticize” any whom he fought alongside. They were “by no means fearless fanatics but very ordinary people drawn from every section of society.” Poet Stephen Spender put it in more harrowing terms “The dead in wars are not heroes: they are freezing or rotting lumps of isolated insanity.” Spender wrote that when he came back from Spain, he was more than ever behind the cause of social revolution. He was impressed by the “emotional honesty” of the Spaniards who fought for what they believed in with “few heroics, no White Feathers, and genuine hatred for the necessity of war”. Spender and Romilly argued that anti-fascist men could fight for what they believed in and still oppose authoritarianism, militarism and even, paradoxically, war if it meant the forces of social revolution could triumph over fascism and imperialism. They saw in anti-fascist men their own “happy warriors”, albeit warriors that were actually at war, rather than just fighting a general election campaign.
This anti-fascist image of masculinity, cultivated by Spender, Romilly and others, was compromised by the defeat of the Spanish Republic, the beginning of the Second World War and the fall from grace of the Soviet Union with the Nazi-Soviet Pact. The optimistic democratic movement in Spain had been defeated and the choice was now whether to join the British establishment’s war on fascism or to continue the fight against both. In addition, the Soviet Union’s alliance with Hitler over the invasion of Poland meant the leading light of the international left had allied itself with the world’s most belligerent fascist regime.
The stakes for Miliband were considerably lower than they were for Romilly and Spender who faced lonely death in a foreign country. There is, however, a peculiar similarity between these anti-fascists stressing their convictions over their fighting ability or their masculine prowess and Miliband casting himself as a leader without the looks or charisma of his opponents but “[w]ith the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard.” As analysts and party strategists pick over the ruins of Miliband’s campaign to find out what went wrong, we shall no doubt soon find out whether it was the failure of Miliband’s “happy warrior” against Cameron’s elder statesmen persona that contributed to the Conservative’s surprise victory.
 Matt Chorley & Tim Shipman, ‘Ed Miliband is WEIRD’, Daily Mail, 25 March 2014, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2587963/Ed-Miliband-WEIRD-say-40-voters-pressure-mounts-Labour-leader-poll-lead-Tories-slumped-one-point.html [last accessed: 28 April 2015]; Andrew Pierce, ‘Red Ed’s VERY tangled love life’, Daily Mail, 9 April 2015, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3032823/Red-Ed-s-tangled-love-life-Miliband-s-wife-tells-fury-meeting-unattached-Ed-learn-seeing-hostess-just-one-number-relationships-women-clique.html [last accessed: 28 April 15].
Ed Miliband, ‘The Choice of Leadership – Full Text’, Labourlist, 25 July 2014, http://labourlist.org/2014/07/the-choice-of-leadership-read-the-full-text-of-ed-milibands-speech/ [last accessed: 28 April 2015].
 Nicholas Watt, ‘David Cameron shows why Harold Macmillan is his political hero’, Guardian, 5 October 2011, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/wintour-and-watt/2011/oct/05/davidcameron-toryconference [last accessed: 28 April 2015].
 Patrick Wintour, ‘’Happy warrior’ Ed Miliband leaves leaders’ debate notes in dressing room’, Guardian, 5 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/05/happy-warrior-ed-miliband-leaves-leaders-debate-notes-in-dressing-room [last accessed: 28 April 2015].
 Election 2015, ‘The rise of Milifandom’, 22 April 2015, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/election-2015-32413372?ns_mchannel=social&ns_campaign=bbc_politics&ns_source=twitter&ns_linkname=news_central [last accessed: 28 April 2015].
 Matt Dathan, ‘Exit poll results: Forecast says Tories will win 316 seats – just 10 short of a majority, while SNP to take all but one seat in Scotland’, Independent, 7 May 2015, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/generalelection/exit-poll-results-forecast-says-tories-will-win-316-seats–just-10-short-of-a-majority-while-snp-to-take-all-but-one-seat-in-scotland-10233725.html [last accessed: 8 May 2015].
 Press Association, ‘Tory attacks on Ed Miliband are failing, says pollster Ashcroft’, 24 April 2015, http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/apr/24/tory-attacks-on-ed-miliband-failing-lord-ashcroft [last accessed: 28 April 2015].
 Tony Collins, ‘Return to Manhood: The Cult of Masculinity and the British Union of Fascists’ in Superman Supreme: Fascist Body as Political Icon – Global Fascism, ed. J. A. Mangan, London; Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2000, pp. 145, 146; Julie Gottlieb, ‘Body Fascism in Britain: Building the Blackshirt in the Inter-War Period’, Contemporary European History, 20, 2011, pp. 111-136.
 G. De Burgh Wilmot, ‘Blackshirts are Warriors of the New Age’, Blackshirt, No. 59, 8 June 1934, p. 6.
 Ibid, p. 6.
 Edgell Rickword, ‘Straws for the Wary: Antecedent to Fascism’, Left Review, 1, 1 (1934), p. 22.
 Wilmot, ‘Warriors of the New Age’, p. 6.
 Esmond Romilly, ‘Foreword’ in Boadilla, London: Macdonald, 1971, p. 13.
 Ibid., p. 13.
 Stephen Spender, ‘Heroes in Spain’ in The Thirties and After: Poetry, Politics, People, 1933-1975, London: Fontana/Collins, 1978, p. 69.
 Ibid., p. 70.
 Miliband, ‘Choice of Leadership’
Liam Liburd is a Masters student studying Modern History at the University of Sheffield. His undergraduate dissertation was on the centrality of the ‘new fascist man’ in the politics of the British Union of Fascists. His current research is on masculinity and anti-fascism in Britain during the interwar period. You can find him on twitter at @LJLiburd93.
Image source: Getty
This is an incisive and really thought-provoking discussion of the construction of masculinity on the British left. Much has been said about the way conservative and far-Right figures use their ‘sex appeal’, but here Liam Liburd suggests that we can ask the same questions about the gendering of Labour politics, and how it works and doesn’t work.