Saturday, October 01, 2011

Miliband shows the extent of his boldness, but the reaction shows the extent of his task

Of all the many soundbites devised by Tony Blair’s speechwriters for their leader’s party conference speeches, among the most irritating was the claim that New Labour was “at its best when at its boldest.”

If New Labour had ever done anything remotely bold, it might have had more of a ring of truth about it, but all it ever really did was to maintain and entrench the political and economic consensus established in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher.

It was this implicit recognition of New Labour’s shortcomings which lay at the heart of Ed Miliband’s conference speech in Liverpool this week, and which gave Labour’s current leader his own, rather more plausible claim to boldness.

Indeed, I would go so far as to say that, in setting out explicitly to overturn that consensus, Mr Miliband has made what was probably the most courageous conference speech by any major party leader over the course of the last two decades.

If anyone thinks I am overstating the case here, they had only to listen to the predominantly negative public reaction to the speech in Wednesday morning’s radio phone-ins.

Far from being a platform from which to relaunch his leadership, the speech left Mr Miliband on the back foot for much of that day, forced to defend himself against claims of a “lurch to the left.”

Does that mean the speech was not so much brave as foolhardy? Well, had it been a pre-election conference, then perhaps so.

But what Mr Miliband was setting out to do was not so much to secure a short-term electoral advantage as to change the entire terms of the political debate, and in this respect, he at least has time on his side.

Much of Labour’s week in Liverpool has been a collective ‘mea culpa’ for the failings and missed opportunities of the Blair-Brown years.

The warm-up act for Mr Miliband was provided on Monday by Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls, who expressed his own regrets over Labour’s economic record.

But while Mr Balls was talking merely about some aspects of economic management, the scope of Mr Miliband’s admission went far wider. “We did not do enough to change the values of our economy,” he said.

While cleverly branding David Cameron – the youngest Prime Minister in almost 200 years! - as the “last-gasp” of the ancien regime, the clear message was that Messrs Blair and Brown were also part of that failed consensus.

Not the least ambitious aspect of the speech was its attempt to restore the concept of ‘morality’ as a defining feature of our political culture.

Usually when a politician starts banging on about morality it precedes a dramatic fall from grace, but the confluence of the MPs’ expenses scandal, the banking crisis and phone-hacking has created a moment of opportunity which Mr Miliband has not been slow to spot.

Having already made his pitch for the moral high ground by leading the attack on Rupert Murdoch this summer, the Labour leader sought this week to build on that good work.

Now that Nick Clegg has vacated the role, there is a clear gap in the market for a ‘Mr Clean’ of British politics, and Mr Miliband has an authentic claim to the mantle.

Was it a lurch to the left? Well, in the sense that it was setting its face against the centre-right consensus of the past 30 years, then yes.

But on closer inspection there was little in the speech that would fit any traditional idea of left-wingery.

For instance, Mr Miliband said at one point that “government spending is not going to be the way we achieve social justice in the next decade.”

Had Tony Blair said this, everyone would have seen it as further evidence of his determination to bury Old Labour-style tax-and-spend and shift the party several degrees further to the right.

When Ed Miliband fought his brother for the Labour leadership a year ago, he made clear that he thought it was time to move on from New Labour.

At the time, this came over merely an adroit piece of positioning in a party weary of the factionalism of the Blair-Brown years, but now it is starting to look like there was real substance to it.

The largely hostile reaction to Tuesday’s speech illustrates the scale of Mr Miliband’s task – but at least he has a clear idea where he is going.

Now all he needs to do is to take the public with him.

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