Saturday, October 06, 2012

Can 'Red Ed' really command the centre ground?

Twelve months ago, Ed Miliband delivered what I described at the time as probably the most courageous party conference speech by any major political leader over the course of the last two decades.

The Liverpool address, in which he admitted that New Labour had not done enough to change the “values” of the British economy, amounted to no less than an attempt to overturn the political consensus that has been maintained by successive governments of right and left since the 1980s.

This year’ s speech, delivered 30 miles down the road in Manchester, was no less audacious - but whereas then Mr Miliband appeared to be adopting a distinctly leftish analysis of the country’s problems, this year saw him resorting to one of Tony Blair’s favourite pastimes – stealing the Tories’ clothes.

And it is perhaps in that apparent contradiction – between the leftward-lurching ‘Red Ed’ of 12 months ago and the ‘One Nation’ Labourite of this week – that Mr Miliband’s problem lies.

You cannot fault the Labour leader’s instincts in seeking to place himself and his party firmly in the centre ground of British politics. That is, after all, where elections are invariably won and lost.

And Prime Minister David Cameron can surely only blame himself for giving his opponent the opportunity to indulge in a spot of political cross-dressing.

By instinct a One Nation, compassionate Conservative himself, he has allowed himself since entering Downing Street to be blown off course by an angry right-wing rump who cannot forgive him for failing to win the election outright and thereby forcing them into a Coalition with those ghastly Lib Dems.

The past 18 months have seen a grisly procession of rightward shifts, from his backbenchers’ piece-by-piece demolition of Nick Clegg’s plans for political reform, to a reshuffle that saw a climate change sceptic put in charge of environment policy.

So the time was surely ripe this week for Mr Miliband to make a play for the centrist-minded voters that Mr Cameron appears to have all-but-abandoned in his desperation to keep the Boris Johnson fan club at bay.

And there was much about the labour leader’s ‘One Nation’ pitch that rang true, in particular his desire to focus attention and resources on the ‘forgotten 50pc’ who don’t go to university and his determination to speak up as much for the ‘squeezed middle’ as those living in poverty.

I was also impressed by the evident passion with which he spoke up, not for the unions, but for the Union – under threat as never before as a result of Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond’s independence referendum plans.

Mr Miliband is right that only the Labour Party can save it. The Tories and Lib Dems are a busted flush north of the border, and only the Labour Party will ever have the strength in Scotland to defeat Mr Salmond’s nationalists.

Above all, the speech demonstrated that Mr Miliband has the potential to give the Labour Party the clear sense of direction it has lacked since Mr Blair left office in 2007.

Gordon Brown should have done this, and had the opportunity to do so, but for all his talk about restoring the party’s cherished ‘var-lues’, his much-vaunted Real Labour – or was it True Labour? – never really achieved lift-off.

Now we have One Nation Labour, which, if rather short on specifics at this stage, at least sounds as if it might finally resolve the vexed question of what follows New Labour.

If Mr Miliband is to ensure it is more than a slogan, he now needs to spend the 12 months between this and the next party conference putting some policy flesh on the bones.

There was widespread agreement, even among Tory commentators, that Tuesday’s speech was a bravura performance by the Labour leader, a brilliantly-crafted and passionate address that has the potential to be a political game-changer.

But the nub of Ed Miliband’s problem, as the former Tory MP turned political blogger Jerry Hayes put it rather crudely this week, is that he genuinely is the most left-wing Labour leader since Michael Foot.

The really big question is whether, the light of this, Mr Miliband can come to be seen by the voters as a credible occupant of the political centre-ground in the way that both Mr Blair and Mr Cameron were before him.

And on that score, the jury is still out.

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