Tuesday 28 September 2010

Ed Miliband as Labour's RFK

So Ed Miliband is Labour's RFK. This was the speech of the idealistic younger brother as political leader, prepared to gamble on hope. There was the explicit echo of a politics which knows that not everything we value can be measured by GDP, when it comes to community, belonging and identity, but beyond that in an insurgent confidence that he can define himself, even if it sometimes means breaking with the political positioning playbook of the late 1990s. That won't stop others trying, of course, but the conference hall enjoyed most his "come off it" laughing off of the 'Red Ed' tag. He was comfortable in his own skin,

Here are five reflections on aspects of the speech:

1. The audacity of optimism

The "new generation" refrain was framed as being about moving beyond the New Labour era. In fact, it was an audacious challenge to the Cameron-Clegg 'new politics'.

"Mr Cameron, you were an optimist once" riffed off Cameron's first Prime Minister's Questions in which he sought to claim the future from Tony Blair.

Ed Miliband's plan is that, from October 20th, everything changes. The Coalition will be the Establishment, defending its austerity plans on a "there is no alternative" ticket. Were it to come off, the exciting era of "new politics" should be seen as a mere 'May to September' Coalition fling - the hopeful spirit of the Rose Garden extinguished already in an Autumn of austerity, and with Labour no longer primarily focused on defending its past but demanding instead the mantle of change.

2. Has an Opposition leader's conference keynote ever done so little to bash the government?

Many Labour speeches offer little beyond a litany of evil Tory failures. It is probably one reason that people not already onside stopped listening to the party before the election. Labour's task was to make its own pitch, not least to win permission to be heard with its critique of the government.

There was the first shot at reframing the debate about the deficit, insisting that Labour would meet its credibility challenge, seeking to claiming the centre-ground of where public opinion currently is on the deficit and asking whether it was the Coalition which was taking risks with irresponsibility. There was a good line about the depth of public under-investment in schools and hospitals before 1997 - that the Tories never fixed the roof when the sun was shining. And that was about all. Even that was balanced by an offer of bipartisan support on Afghanistan, civil liberties and prison reform.

3. Nick Clegg didn't get a mention - though Keynes, Lloyd George and Beveridge did

There was no LibDem bashing in the speech, but rather an expression of pluralist intent, in Miliband's citing of Liberal heroes who form part of his liberal social democratic intellectual heritage. Ed Miliband intends to create a Labour party with which a much broader progressive movement can feel comfortable - invited to join the party, to campaign alongside it for causes, and (just the smallest hint) perhaps to work alongside him in a future government too.

4. After New Labour: Change - with continuity too

Defining the shift from New Labour as a generational one is smart. New Labour was a revisionist, reforming argument, now in risk of becoming too much a conservative project of consolidation. Yet he was careful to give examples of where New Labour was right to challenge - tough on crime and the causes; not interested in being punitive on tax - which set the boundaries around what would stay.

There were significant symbolic moves on Iraq ("I do believe we were wrong", while respecting those who still disagree in the party"), on civil liberties, and in taking responsibility for the crash having hubristically claimed to end boom and bust. There was a willingness to be more explicit about the gap between rich and poor mattering, "responsible" trade unions being part of civilised society, and the good society being better for us all.

On political economy, the task of creating a new argument which does not hanker for the status quo ante has barely begun.

Elsewhere, there were as many acknowledgements of what not to throw away - public service reform where focused on tackling under-performance. It was not a speech which suggested there will be many major divisions over future policy between the new leader and those who supported his brother on experience and continuity grounds.

5. Using left values to persuade the party to get out of it "comfort zone"

Will Ed Miliband tell his party things they don't want to hear? The commentators claim not. He insisted that he would. The speech showed how one part of the strategy is to tell the party that it must face up to difficult challenges - not to trim on its values for electability, but because doing so is what is demanded by its own principles and values.

Take immigration: he told the party that being deaf to concerns about the social and economic pressures of immigration was to betray its own historic mission. Not to chase headlines in the Mail and the Sun, but to meet the concerns of Mirror readers about the wage pressures of immigration. "Immigration is a class issue" is an argument which combines Labour concerns with anxieties held by a broader public.

On welfare too, the case for insisting that those who can work do is not just because the electorate demands it, but because the values of contribution and responsibility are the defining values of the left's own welfare ideal. The end point is not so different from New Labour rights and responsibilities. The alternative route may see the leader bring a broader coalition with him.

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