Thursday, 25 September 2014

Ed’s speech needed to change the political weather. It didn’t

23 September, 2014: the culmination of four years as leader. Milliband’s last major pitch to lead the country, for this parliament at least.

From now, time can only tell whether it has been the gateway to a whole new vista of politics for Miliband and the keys to No. 10; an attempt to convince his party that he would be still the best option after a narrow defeat; or some kind of a swansong.

Now, the central message of the speech is one which resonates – with the Tories, you’re on your own. The many not the few. We all believe in that, it’s what makes us Labour. And Miliband rightly points up the transparent makeover that David Cameron made of his party, in order to get elected, only to be swiftly ditched shortly thereafter. Good attack lines.

The question is, of course, with eight months to a general election, whether we are perceived as offering a credible, viable alternative. But we are getting ahead of ourselves.

Presentationally, the decision to offer a ten-year plan, while admirably long-term thinking, seems a tactical error (at least we might thank our lucky stars it was not a five-year plan, although the echo of Chairman Mao was still enough to please the headline-writers).

And let’s be honest: after four years, the “I met this guy” format is starting to look a little tired. As the Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow put it: “if I were David Cameron’s speechwriter, I would already be working up a passage for Cameron’s conference speech about how Labour policy is now being decided…by whichever stranger Miliband happens to meet in his local park.”

But these are quibbles. It is the meat we need to evaluate.

To start with, it was telling that the centerpiece of the speech is a conversation with a former Lib Dem voter. Worryingly, whether or not we believe in the existence of the fabled “35% strategy” of attracting former Lib Dem voters, we certainly still seem to be aiming for the Lib-Dems-plus-a-few-other-odds-and-sods strategy, a patchwork quilt of support from different interest groups.

And we can see it in the speech – there is a nod to practically everyone. While some of this is normal in a conference speech, here it veered towards the extreme: the gay vote, pro-Europe liberals, public service workers, boxes were being ticked for parcels of leftish voters in every other sentence. To ensure we don’t lose either Muslim or Jewish voters, dammit, the man is even going to bring peace between Israel and Palestine.

All the while, there is one fundamental truth about Britain’s electoral makeup which, after all this time, we are still apparently having trouble grasping: that Labour only gets to govern when they attract votes from the centre; those who would otherwise vote Tory.

But woolly thinking abounds. For instance, “equal rights for the self-employed”: as Michael Crick tweeted, what exactly does it mean? It seems we have not grasped the fact that many are self-employed because they choose to be; they accept the deal of trading greater job security for being paid a little better. We cannot just march in and tell them they are victims who need more rights.

Another example: the speech’s only serious foray into foreign policy was on ISIL but here it was stymied by a lack of grasp of the subject. A UN Security Council resolution must be demanded, to support military action against ISIL.

Trouble is, Miliband might as well ask for the resolution to be written on parchment and brought to the UN on the back of a unicorn; Russia, as everyone knows, will veto. Meanwhile, the same day, Cameron is at the UN, playing the statesman.

On to the speech’s core, where we have the now-traditional pre-election pledge points (six – you get an extra one free with this leadership).

Ensuring “the wages of everyday working people grow at the same rate” as the economy is economically illiterate unless you mean an incomes policy. Yes, that’s right: what Labour espoused in the 1970s. That is what the leadership’s totemic idea of “pre-distribution” ultimately reduces to.

“Ensuring as many school-leavers go on apprenticeships as university” is at least quantifiable; but it is also doubtful in terms of having Britain compete with a China and India whose graduate populations are growing at an alarming rate.

Home-building makes sense. Tackling low wages: ok. But “Create one million more high-tech jobs by securing the UK’s position as is a world leader in green industries”: how, exactly? And as for “build a world-class, 21st century health and care service”, it sounds merely vaguely hopeful.

In short, these are not the solid pledges of 1997, but someone’s wish list. This is not good.

And finally, to the issue of the day. It still seems incredible but, last week, we came the closest we have to the breakup of Britain since Ireland seceded in 1923.

To his credit, Miliband makes an important point: “all of us in this hall have a responsibility to try and explain why 45 per cent of people voted yes”. Indeed we do.

The trouble is that there is a more uncomfortable and truer answer than his own, that its habitants “don’t think we can solve their problems”; that much is obvious.

And it’s that Scots were sick of Labour.

Oh, it’s true they were sick of the Tories as well; they always are, as Cameron himself would surely recognise. But we were different.

Labour has ruled Scottish politics for as long as anyone can remember, and was then given nearly two decades of untrammeled power. During much of that time we fielded, harsh though it may sound, our B-team. We and we alone created the conditions for a populist like Salmond to flourish, and then only narrowly saved Scotland from destroying itself and the Union in the resulting protest vote. That is the reality.

Just as we did with Lutfur Rahman in Tower Hamlets, our hegemony created an unhealthy politics, and the result was the creation of monsters outside our party: spectres leading protest votes against us, which voters are only now finally starting to see through.

Furthermore, Labour still needs an answer to the referendum’s aftermath. Cameron is offering the political bulldozer of English Votes for English Laws; an effective way of hobbling the Labour Party either in Parliament or outside it, by stopping Scots from voting on English issues.

While it is respectable to avoid being a turkey voting for Christmas in going along with Cameron’s plan, it may not be enough to simply accuse Cameron of playing politics (though he clearly is). And our response, a Constitutional Convention, seems at once both wonkish and woefully inadequate.

But there are bigger responses still we lack. In the end, probably the most important question overall is this: have we done something this conference, as Kevin Meagher said yesterday at Uncut, to “address the issue around leadership and economic credibility”? We shall see, but one strongly suspects the polling will continue in similarly tragic vein in October, November and thereafter on these twin albatrosses.

While in recent months there seems to have been a little harder-nosed thinking and a late realisation that some of the leadership’s wilder flights of soft-left fancy will not gel with the electorate, we still seem to have ended up with a hotch-potch of policies.

Policies which hope to tick enough boxes in a rainbow coalition but as a whole – according to a wide range of speech reactions – ultimately please neither left nor right.

And people who stay in the middle of the road, as Nye Bevan once put it, tend to get run over.

The last speech. With a slender and ever-eroding poll lead, we needed, simply, a speech which would change the weather. This one didn’t.

The election, if it was not before, is now officially in the lap of the gods.

This piece first published at Labour Uncut and selected for Progress' What We're Reading

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