While the core themes will be familiar to close Miliband-watchers, it is important for the political health of any government for its leading figures to be able to step back and offer a political analysis of the country and their party. Given that it is in the nature of the role that Prime Ministers speak more to national than party audiences, I feel this is something Gordon Brown's colleagues have too seldom attempted outside their specific ministerial briefs over the last two years.
I would highlight four significant arguments in the speech.
The claim for Labour's record as a government of enduring reform is made well, particularly when the argument against 'democratic pessimism' and for the possibility of political change is a difficult one to make from in power without seeming either defensive or shrill. It is a much better defence for being fair-minded and candid about the areas it covers, though the brief audit can not attempt to be comprehensive, steering clear of Miliband's foreign policy day job and Iraq; of the governing of markets, and home affairs.
The defence of progress made is combined with an "inside critique", echoing Geoff Mulgan's argument that the pressure to exaggerate the possibility of short-term change means that governments struggle to articulate the scale of longer-term change that is possible, identifying several areas where a different or deeper agenda is now needed.
What is not quite said is that one reason why the government does "not do a good job of explaining" these changes is that it never quite set out a clear public account of how these different reforming impulses fitted together into a coherent sense of Labour's sense of the country it was seeking to shape. So New Labour has reformed but only partly realigned, exemplified by the incrementalism of its own agenda and especially in the ambiguity about whether and how far its opponents have substantively changed.
2. After Thatcherism
This ambiguity about the nature of the change which Labour sought to bring about in part reflects an ambiguity about its inheritance too: neither New Labour's last nor its next generation (nor indeed the New Tories) have yet been able to give a clear and frank public account of Thatcherism and its consequences, fearing this would divide their electoral coalitions.
Miliband edges forward with a good account of how the creative destruction of Thatcherism has disrupted the politics of the right, setting economics and social instincts at odds. The implication that social democracy must seek to reconcile those contradictions perhaps sets a direction of travel, though it leaves several important questions open.
Thatcherism ultimately undid the Tories for a generation because it liberated economic dynamism without finding a way to build social trust or protection as a buffer against those very same forces. The result was a political not to say moral contradiction which the Tories have not yet resolved. Our challenge is to sustain and spread forces of individual empowerment more equally while enhancing rather than reducing capacity for collective action to tackle shared risks.
3. Ideology and equality
This leads Miliband to restate his important argument for fusing the instincts and insights of the liberal and social democratic traditions, in pursuit of an egalitarian liberalism.
I want to make one point about ideology. New Labour has embraced the pro Europeanism and multilateralism traditionally associated with Labour’s right, while it embraced the individual rights and minimum wage proposed by the left. It was and is a coalition within the party. It is strongest when it combines the tradition that goes under a radical liberal banner, sometimes with a small l and sometimes a large one, with its focus on individual liberty and pluralism, and the social democratic tradition of Crosland and others like John Smith, with its focus on societal equality driven through action by the state ...
To contrast these traditions as liberty versus equality, is a ‘category mistake’. As Amartya Sen says: ‘Liberty is among the possible fields of application of equality, and equality is among the possible patterns of distribution of liberty. The radical liberal tradition can teach social democrats the importance of individual lives and stories in the overall pattern of the good society. It speaks to empowerment. The social democrat can teach the radical liberal that, without social justice, there is no freedom. It speaks to collective insecurity. As we address the needs of Britain over the next ten years, we will need to draw on the radical liberal as well as the social democratic tradition.
This places Miliband on the social democratic wing of the liberal republican project. And, since he has been making this argument, the debate about ideas has moved in his direction. I felt that an important theme of the latest Richard Reeves and Phil Collins Demos pamphlet 'The Liberal Republic' was that it no longer critiqued this fusion project by insisting that liberalism must replace and trump social democracy, instead accepting a large part of Miliband's argument for a synthesis in its new liberal (and social democratic) focus on capabilities.
On Stuart's what type of egalitarian are you? map, I suspect Miliband may be in the 'strong meritocrat' camp, with a particular emphasis on inequalities of power. But he is certainly among those frontline politicians who could engage with and answer that question themselves. One participant in the recent Fabian/JRF seminar with John Denham noted the strong element of fairness as reciprocity (and so 'luck egalitarianism', though the term was not used) in the philosophical work which David Miller undertook for the IPPR social justice commission which Miliband led at the start of the 1990s, though noted too that it was difficult to integrate those insights into the social democratic policy agenda of the Commission.
4. Party reform
The crunchiest part of the speech was around party reform, and several reports picked this up. The direction of travel strongly chimes with that set out by Nick Anstead and Will Straw in The Change We Need, with an especially neat europhile twist in deriving those lessons from the Greek socialists as much as the Obama campaign. I hope Nick, Will, Anthony Painter and others pushing this argument might offer more detailed analysis of Miliband's contribution and where this debate goes next.
It seems to me that the argument has been largely won, but that this is far from enough. We have an ever stronger rhetorical consensus at all levels of the party on the end of 'top down' and the case for a shift to 'movement politics' inside and beyond the party. What may be needed now is advocacy and organisation for several achievable concrete changes which might catalyse the broader shift in party culture. Giving this some sharper tangible focus would probably build momentum over time but also identify where quiet resistance may be lurking.
So the speech contains a lot of interesting signposts towards a next phase of confident social democratic advocacy and reform. But rather more is needed to flesh this out. I would highlight three important parts of a political argument which are also needed.
1. This strikes me as an effective speech in opening an intelligent discussion with the government's supporters, perhaps particularly in offering to engage confidently but seriously with those who are constructively critical (including many party members). This matters. The government did not do seem to do this much ahead of the 2005 campaign, too often employing a hectoring and arrogant tonality of entitlement which probably repelled considerably more wavering support than it attracted.
But it is more difficult to see how far this yet speaks to more detached, disillusioned or hostile opinion, including among progressive audiences, which is also necessary to rebuild the broad base of support needed for a serious contest.
2. The speech is inevitably rather policy light. Collective responsibility does not bar specific ideas and recommendations around party reform, but places constraints elsewhere. Without advocating a free-for-all, some pushing at the boundaries would be useful. Political reform is an obvious area, where Alan Johnson's intervention probably did change the odds as to whether the government takes the plunge and goes for an electoral reform referendum. Right now, there is too little engaged debate within the party and with broader constituencies about how Labour's future vision should translate into an election manifesto. That can not at all be a job for Ministers alone - it is a responsibility we all have - but the government and party can help to create that space, which is important to mobilise campaigning energy over the year ahead.
And I am not yet entirely persuaded by Miliband's argument for empowerment as the animating and transformative mission, couched in the 'I need', 'I want', 'I can' triptych describing three generations of political change.
This is an attractive direction of travel, and an important part of the picture. There are some difficulties in translating this into an effective and comprehensible public politics as well as to develop it from policy blueprints into concrete change that is experienced as real by those it would seek to empower. But perhaps the most important political challenge is ensuring that Labour advocates a distinctively social democratic empowerment agenda, as Miliband's egalitarian liberal fusion project implies, so as to avoid the danger of a warm words rhetorical consensus across the political spectrum in which the significant choices are obscured. Here, Stuart White's democratic republicans could no doubt assist if Miliband were to be seeking some sharper egalitarian edge for his empowerment agenda.
3. Most importantly of all, while this is a significant analysis of the condition of the government after 12 years, it is thinner as an analysis of the condition of Britain. Miliband offers an important policy audit, but perhaps too much the view from the Cabinet Office or from Whitehall. A broader argument about the state of the nation is implicit, but rather understated.
This reflects an account of both the scope and limits of New Labour reform: that the government has significantly realigned across the field of policy, where it has had a buzzing policy energy reflected in the changes Miliband identified, but has paid little attention to creating public political space to go further. Indeed, political space has often closed in on the government over time, and some strategies designed to gain permission may have contributed to this.
So the government has a stronger story to tell on policy and governance than is often acknowledged. But there is little point, politically, in being able to win detailed policy arguments on the data if political opponents remain ahead on public narrative and framing.
The government's forward agenda often contains detailed agendas for change in the economy, education, the environment and elsewhere - but not yet enough attention has gone in to articulating a clear public sense of the problems which the agenda is seeking to address. The Building Britain's Future strategy does begin to do this, with a similar analysis to that offered by Miliband: it was important to have an agenda which began from a social and political analysis, though this must be developed further.
Such a critique of the country it governs is difficult for long-standing incumbents, but must underpin any programme for change.
That state of thenation argument must be one about opportunity and inequality. Perhaps for Miliband, this would have a strong emphasis especially on inequalities of power and control. This is implicit in the Miliband speech - and set out more expansively in an earlier Fabian speech on 'the fight against fate'.
One of the most striking features of the Fabian Society report for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation is not just that the scale of unequal opportunities, while easily recognised and understood when discussed, is much less salient than individualised explanations. It is also that there is widespread recognition that Britain has changed significantly - with particular concern voiced about the increased insecurity and intensity of work combined with a more materialistic culture - yet absolutely no clear public sense about why society has changed, still less a consensus about this. This was also a significant driver of fatalism - which is linked to the type of 'democratic pessimism' which Miliband wants to challenge.
So this account of the government's political journey is certainly important in the quest for political renewal; an analysis and critique of the condition of Britain in 2010 is more foundational still.