The Labour challenge gathers pace, but the ghost of 1992 still haunts

What to make of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Conference yesterday?  I did not see it.  On reading that it lasted 65 minutes I’m afraid I ducked out of watching it or reading transcript.  So what I am relying on is a very indirect impression – much as the rest of the public gets.  One thing is clear: it was a big success.  This shows that Mr Miliband is a leader who learns from his mistakes, and is consistently raising his game.  In my view Labour are now odds-on to win the next General Election with a full majority.  What happens after that is another matter.

One way of gauging the speech’s success is silence from the usual suspects.  The Lib Dem early morning briefing for activists decided not to mention it.  Even more egregiously the right-wing think tank Reform’s daily press summary contained only a tangential reference.  Contrast this with the hay that the usual critics were making last year.  The most important thing about this is that it confers on Mr Miliband and air of competence – something that is absolutely vital in modern politics.  As an aside, I think that the real reason why Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney is in trouble is not the substance of his so-called gaffes, but that these make his campaign look incompetent.

As to content, this is harder to gauge.  Some commentators hail his appeal to the “One Nation” theme of 19th Century Tory Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli as a stroke of genius.  Maybe you had to be there – but this looks like a speech writing gimmick.  On the whole the speech seems to have been pitched at the so-called “centre ground”, apparently vacated by the Conservatives in spite of David Cameron, and also eagerly being eyed up by Nick Clegg and his advisers.  Vocational qualifications; apprenticeships; housing; not promising to reinstate all the current Government’s cuts.  Lib Dems complain that many of these things just exactly what they are already doing in government.  That’s politics: the Lib Dem message is being drowned out by the Tories.  Interestingly there were some sops to big business on encouraging long-term investment – rather spoiled from their point of view by his attack on the current government’s cut to the top rate of income tax – “writing a cheque of £40,000 to every millionaire in the country” – something that is palpably not true (many, even most, millionaires did not pay the 50p tax rate and are unaffected; quite a few non-millionaires did; almost none will actually get a cheque)…an ill-judged sound bight in the battle for donations, if not conference applause.

This is quite well judged overall, though.  Even better, the whole party seems to be singing from more or less the same hymn sheet.  This is so unlike the Tories after they were turned out of power in 1997.  With this discipline and intelligent messaging, they look set to retain the votes they took back from the Lib Dems, and pick up a few more – while the Tories look out of touch and incompetent.

What can go wrong?  All successful political movements require a balancing act, and Labour is no exception.  Labour need to harness the anger of public sector employees at government cuts and reforms to give them the ground troops to counter Tory money, and not a few votes too.  But, unlike Nick Clegg and his student fees pledge, they plan to win and be in a position to fulfill their promises, so that they can win again.  They need to commit to a set of policies that are reasonably workable.  It is here that trouble is building for the party.

First is the obvious point that government cutbacks are not just an ideological Tory attack on the state.  The size of the state in 2010 was systematically too big, and the country may never return to a state on this scale.  Many Labour activists misunderstand Keynesian criticism of the government’s economic strategy into thinking that more state spending will generate lots of growth forever and a day, rather than simply being about the tactics of how a shrinkage is best managed.  Mr Miliband is trying to manage these Labour activists’, and especially trade-unionists’, expectations on this front, and it featured in his speech.  But most of his ideas still seem to involve more state spending.  Expand apprenticeships?  That will require state subsidies.  The same can be said of turbo-charging housebuilding, now part of the centrist consensus.  Upgrading vocational qualifications?  This has been a state policy goal for as long as I can remember.  The problem is not lack of intentions – it is the prioritisation of resources.  Money is by no means the only problem with vocational education – but it is surely part of the solution.

And there is a further difficulty.  If Labour can’t promise their activists and union donors extra state spending, then they have to give them something else.  And that something else is an attack on privatising public services – especially in the NHS, and in policing too.  This will hobble attempts to make state services more efficient and make the problem of dealing with limited budgets that much harder.  This is a nakedly ideological policy, when they are trying paint the Conservatives as the rabid ideologues.

A spectre haunts Ed Miliband and the Labour Party: Neil Kinnock’s campaign against John Major’s Conservative government in 1992.  Mr Major’s government make the current government’s inept communications look slick.  In 1992 Mr Kinnock had them on the ropes; it looked as if the Tories did not even want to win.  And then Labour blew it.  A strong change of message by the Tories on Labour in the final week concetnrated on allegedly unfunded spending commitments under the title “Labour’s tax bombshell”.  Their newspaper allies relentlessly played on the idea that Mr Kinnock was not Prime Ministerial.  And Labour lost.  There are a lot of differences between then and now, but if I was in the Tory election planing department, I would be gathering evidence for another “Labour tax bombshell” campaign.  Labour are providing them with too much tempting material.

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