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.

Memo to Miliband: break some eggs

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.