Great speeches do not election victories make. If they did, Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock – whose oratory far outclassed that of their opponent – would have easily defeated Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.
Nonetheless, the annual address to party conference provides one of the year’s few set-piece opportunities for the leader of the opposition to speak directly to the country. It also offers the chance to chart a course which, if pursued, can later reap electoral dividends. Who, for instance, can deny that Labour’s long march back to political sanity, credibility and, eventually, government began with Kinnock’s evisceration of Militant and the far-left in his speech to the 1985 party conference?
Ed Miliband’s speech this week will probably not have such far-reaching consequences – the stakes then were, after all, far higher – but it may just prove to be a turning-point of his leadership. With voters beginning to tune in to what Labour has to say once again (the prerequisite of winning back their support), this was Miliband’s opportunity to capitalise on his strengths and confront his weaknesses. It was an opportunity he seized with both hands.
A leader’s conference address faces three interrelated tests: of delivery, political positioning, and policy message.
On the first, there can be little doubt that Labour’s leader, perhaps for the first time in such a setting, looked like a potential prime minister. This is no mean feat for any party leader. While they may prove somewhat ephemeral, polls conducted in the days after the speech – which saw a sharp jump in the number of voters judging Miliband up to the job of being prime minister and a narrowing of the gap between him and David Cameron – suggest many voters thought so too.
A relaxed and competent platform performance alone would have got Miliband only so far, however. After two years of attempting to position himself as neither a return to old Labour nor a continuation of New Labour, Miliband’s political positioning has appeared at times rather opaque. With further work and relentless pursuit, the ‘One Nation’ theme that Labour’s leader unveiled may well fill that gap.
Politically, this theme is probably not as great a break with New Labour as some in the party may hope. But Miliband’s message hit the spot for those of us who have long argued that while the policy agenda pursued by New Labour in government needs to change, its basic political position – rooted in the centre-ground, separating means and ends and attempting to reach out to those who do not habitually vote Labour – remains the one that has the best chance of returning the party to power in 2015.
By reassuring those who voted Tory in 2010 that he understood why they had done so, vowing not to govern for sectional interests, and evoking a Conservative tradition that its modern-day heirs appear to have all but abandoned, Miliband sent two vital signals. First, that Labour is not pursuing the kind of comfort-zone, ‘Liberal Democrat-voters first’ strategy which, as Lewis Baston’s recent research for Progress shows, may prevent the formation of another non-Labour coalition government but will leave the party well short of the kind of working majority to which it should aspire.
Second, Miliband evoked the ‘big tent’ politics of the 1990s, showing that, like Tony Blair, he understands that there is no future for the party in the backward-looking, tribal and narrow labourist politics which had truly run its course by the late 1970s. Instead, Miliband offered an updated vision of ‘One Nation Labour’ assembling and representing a broad-based, inclusive and cross-class coalition united by shared progressive values. Moreover, the Labour leader’s best attacks on the Tories during his speech questioned their competence, not their motives. This is surely the most effective way to skewer one’s opponents without alienating those who voted for them.
Miliband’s final test was to illustrate his political vision with concrete policy examples. His decision to focus on vocational education and training was a wise one, given the fact that this was a blind spot of Labour’s time in government, especially when compared to its justifiable desire to boost the number of graduates. Similarly, the pledge to utilise public procurement to pursue goals such as increasing the number of apprenticeships was both sound and an easily comprehensible example of Miliband’s ‘predistribution’ theme at work. It should be remembered, however, that while government should always seek to make taxpayers’ money work harder by asking private companies bidding for contracts to help achieve certain public policy outcomes, this does not necessarily come without a price tag. Eventually, companies bidding for such contracts will pass some of the costs back to the taxpayer in the form of higher bids.
The Labour leader’s intention to wring more out of public procurement is, of course, a reflection of the biggest challenge confronting him: the fact that, if he makes it to Downing Street in two-and-a-half years time, he will face public finances decimated by debt and borrowing, with the need for further cuts in spending to close the deficit. Miliband’s speech acknowledged this fact, even if it did not really wrestle with it.
The great appeal of ‘One Nation Labour’ is the fact that it responds to a genuine public feeling that, in their handling of the economy, the Tories have been divisive and dishonest: pitting one section of society against another, protecting the minority vested interests their party has always sought to advance, while all the while claiming that we are ‘all in this together’.
If he is not to face the kind of public disenchantment that centre-left governments in France and Denmark have provoked by failing to level with the voters prior to coming to office about the challenges they face and the priorities they will pursue, Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ agenda must confront this fact. Beginning Ed Balls’ ‘zero-based’ spending review – and bringing the public into that conversation – before the general election could be the framework in which Labour does so.
Miliband acknowledged two more areas – welfare reform and the social care crisis – which will be critical to the success of his ‘One Nation’ project. Again, his instincts were correct. On welfare, recognising that those unable to work must be protected while those able to do so must be required to. On social care, recognising the need to confront the indignities faced by many elderly people while suggesting that longer lives will mean people working longer. Over the next year, these principles will need to be transformed into policy.
There are three more implications of ‘One Nation Labour’ that Miliband will need to begin to develop in the months ahead. First, a ‘One Nation’ agenda rests on high-quality public services used by all, not a ‘safety net’ for the poorest abandoned by all who can afford to purchase private provision. But to continue to raise their standards at a time of squeezed budgets (essential to that universal buy-in), public services will have to continue to reform. Staff and citizens must be fully engaged in the process, but it is not one that can be ducked or avoided.
Alongside reform, ‘One Nation Labour’ should also prioritise universal public services over universal benefits. The expansion of childcare and social care must come before the perks for middle-class pensioners which the Tories seem so keen to protect for purely electoral reasons.
Second, ‘One Nation Labour’ can have no truck with those who wish to play gesture politics with threats of industrial militancy and confrontation. As Michael Leahy, general secretary of the Community union, suggested at a Progress fringe meeting in Manchester, talk of a general strike to challenge the government is pointless, backward-looking and, ultimately, most damaging to Labour and those who most need to see it back in government. It has to stop.
Finally, crime and antisocial behaviour was notably absent from Miliband’s speech. Social division and discord cannot be healed while some people – usually the most vulnerable – feel unable to walk the streets in safety. ‘One Nation Labour’ cannot ignore this fact.
This week, Ed Miliband offered the overarching vision and strategy that many have urged him to provide. While necessarily incomplete, ‘One Nation Labour’ is the right one. He deserves the party’s unwavering support and assistance in pursuing it.
The question still remains in many voters are seeking is does young Ed have the experience and is he really ready to lead the labour Party to victory who will he invite into the front benches and will it be more of the same ie (Blairism).
Most important is his pledge to repeal the Tories’ toxic NHS Bill, but restoring the 50p tax rate and cracking down on City speculators are also big steps towards restoring Labour as the authentic voice of working people.
It’s a sure-fire vote-winner, it makes solid economic sense and it would bring us a better, safer, more reliable rail network too.
If Miliband adopted it along with other key policies in the union-backed People’s Charter – stopping the cuts, ending wars, providing decent homes for all and renationalising basic services such as energy and water – it would signal the clear change of course that Labour so desperately need after the betrayals of the Blair and Brown years.
But any hope offered by Miliband’s tough talk on tax and banking is undermined by his description of unions as a “sectional interest.”
Again, this suggests worryingly that he is embracing the dogma and rhetoric of new Labour and the right-wing press, which seek to paint unions as self-interested pressure groups lobbying on behalf of the public sector.
Exactly what the Labour Party used to be, in other words – and what it needs to become again.
But for that to happen Miliband needs to realise that the unions are his allies, not his enemies. That the discredited Blairites still infesting the party’s higher echelons are friends of big business but not of the rest of us.
That the tide has turned against the Con-Dems and working people are desperate for a leader who will fight in the Commons like they are fighting day in, day out for their jobs, their pay and their homes.
The big task for delegates in Manchester last week is to drive home that message to Miliband. Labour needs a leader who’ll wage war on David Cameron’s Cabinet of millionaires – not on his own millions of supporters.
There has been some mention of Blue Labour sides with the Tories on public sector pay freezes, they side with the Tories on cuts, they side with the Tories on the Union, and they side with the Tories on attacking strikers. In short, neoliberal Blue Labour offers more of the same. You lot are turkeys voting for xmas.
This is miserable and pathetic politics. The choice isn’t between Clegg’s lies and Miliband’s cowardly refusal to promise anything. It’s a choice between rich and poor, between the 1% and the rest of us, between running a country for and behalf of working people or for and on behalf of the establishment and the rich.
Miliband has made it clear which side he’s on and it isn’t the side of the working class. If you support that then you are as bad. You, like Blue Labour, are part of the problem, not the solution.
I guess I could continue but decided to stop as the other comments get more degarding and frankly not worth mentioning on my blog.