As a political insider it’s very easy to be carried away by partisan emotions, but very dangerous. Thus I have been watching (not literally) the Labour conference with a great deal of caution. I want to scoff, but my better self tells me to be more careful. And that applied especially the Labour leader Ed Miliband’s speech delivered yesterday. After reading the commentary in the papers I decided that I had to read the text of it too.
Let’s start with the good bits. It set out a clear narrative for the past present and future. His starting point was Mrs Thatcher and the 1980s. Some good reforms but she started a culture of heedless self-advancement. New Labour was a step forward because it invested heavily in public services and in tackling poverty – but it didn’t do enough (anything?) to change a reckless business culture, and this brought the whole system down in the financial crash of 2008-09. After the crash the current government is doing nothing to address this underlying sickness, and its austerity policies are choking off growth and making things worse. For the future, Mr Miliband wants to transform society by making government more moral, and finally taming the monster that Mrs Thatcher unleashed.
Mr Miliband’s core constituency, the “squeezed middle”, remained firmly at the centre of his narrative – although he wisely did not use that phrase. These are people who are neither rich nor poor, and whose living standards are being steadily squeezed, as government largesse is focused on those who are poorer. Mr Miliband identified this key group at the start of his leadership, and he is maintaining his aim. He is clearly more successful in this than the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg, who has identified the same group as decisive (using the phrase “Alarm Clock Britain” to describe them, to general derision), but has struggled to hit the right note.
It is easy to pick holes in the narrative, but that would only hint at its main weaknesses. Firstly that to most people it will sound abstract and irrelevant, and second that he failed to tackle the hard choices that would show he meant business.
Irrelevance? Britain stands in the middle of a global financial crisis, lurching towards another episode on a par with the crisis of 2008. The Euro zone is at the heart of this crisis, and thus the European Union, this country’s main diplomatic and economic partner, is facing the biggest challenge in its history. And Mr Miliband’s answer to this global challenge? To fiddle with VAT rates and implement the government’s cuts a bit slower. The world situation got hardly a mention. No doubt the idea is to set a time-bomb for the government, so that as the economy fails to approve he can say “told you so”. But since Labour’s explanation of the 2008 crisis was the world economic situation, what answer do they have if this government says the same thing? As George Osborne and David Cameron scurry round the globe trying to stave off disaster, Labour stays at home and whinges about VAT. This doesn’t look very convincing.
And he did not have much else to say that would help his squeezed middle voters in the pocket, rather than replicating their complaints about benefit cheats and fatcats. In fact he did not have much to say on specific policies at all. He wants to cut university tuition fees (which would in fact help the better off more than anybody) and that’s about it.
The problem is this: change hurts. People know that instinctively, so that to convince them that you are serious you have to do painful things. Tony Blair did so by taking on a number of Labour shibboleths: Clause 4 of the party constitution, not raising income taxes and (as few now remember) sticking to the then Tory government’s austerity plans to tackle the deficit. David Cameron did similar things on socially liberal issues, while eschewing tax cuts. What will Mr Miliband do to show that he is serious about his mission to transform Britain, and win back trust?
Here are some things he might do:
- Accept more publicly the logic of the Government’s austerity policies in order to create the funds for tax cuts to the squeezed middle as the economy improves. We did get statements that they could not reinstate all the government’s cuts, but the delivery of these was so muffled that I don’t think most Labour activists noticed them, still less become angry.
- Call for reform of the European Union so as to address the unfolding financial crisis, throwing down the gauntlet to Tory Eurosceptics.
- Pick a serious fight with the trade unions about public sector strikes and participation in Labour politics.
- Call on the government to get serious about coasting schools and sub-standard health services by in the first case getting tougher on teachers and the second closing sub-critical hospitals and putting serious heat onto GPs.
- Challenging ordinary voters by pointing out that they also contributed to the crisis by living off credit cards and going for ever bigger mortgages.
Each of these would require a lot of courage – but that’s the point; he must make a lot of people in his party angry. Instead we get some rather bland ideas about favouring “good” rather than “bad” businesses. But these sound rather like things that the coalition is already putting forward on banking reform and reshaping the economy towards manufacturing and green businesses – Mr Miliband even quoted Lib Dem Business Secretary Vince Cable in his support on the radio this morning. Other ideas sound like more bureaucracy.
To make an omelette, they say, you have to break some eggs. Until Mr Miliband starts breaking eggs nobody will take him seriously.