Saturday 21 May 2011

Labour can't become a party of the status quo, Ed Miliband warns Progress

Ed Miliband went to the Progress conference, to speak to the flank of the party which (rightly) emphasises the importance of Labour leaders to be prepared to speak uncomfortable truths to the party.

So the Labour leader rather appropriately thought it important to ensure that he challenged the Progress audience to get out of their own comfort zone too, taking aim at what could now be called the 'old new Labour' politics of defensive consolidation.

His speech did warn the party more generally that opposing cuts would not be enough, before ending with a pointed, if politely articulated, statement of where the leader believes that the analysis being pursued, both publicly and privately, from the party’s right-wing risks making a fatal strategic mistake, by warning of a series of “false choices” – an argument about pursuing Tory or LibDem votes, and about pursuing equality or aspiration – in internal party debates about the party’s mission and electoral strategy.

Some of this shouldn't need saying

Miliband particularly wanted to challenge the argument that Labour’s political strategy to build an alternative majority should be based on accepting the Coalition government’s Thatcher-echoing “there is no alternative” defence of George Osborne’s economic strategy.

This, he said, would be an excessively fatalistic Labour politics of pessimism, giving the party no platform on which to stand for office while also in effect giving the Conservatives a couple of years notice that they had every opportunity to frame the next General Election on whatever terrain they choose.

Let me end with this thought about the journey we are on together.

There is a prevailing idea that this is a Conservative country.

That there is little we can do apart from accommodate to that fact.

I think the people who believe that are wrong. Not just because the majority of people at the last election voted for parties other than the Conservative party.

But because I know that voters want something more than this government can provide.

Just as we should not accept a politics of pessimism for our country, so we shouldn't for our party either.

But to deliver that better, optimistic politics requires ambition for our future, for what our politics can achieve. We could accept a politics of decline and pessimism. But we cannot let the Conservatives pessimism stunt our ambition for our country or our party.

Miliband was able to persuasively argue that Labour’s crushing defeat in Scotland reflected a failure to recognise how much the vision thing mattered, as had the party’s May 2010 focus on the risks of change. (Steve Richards has set out in his study of the Brown government ‘Whatever it takes’ how Ed Miliband’s front-seat view of Gordon Brown’s three years in Downing Street have hard-wired this belief for the Labour leader).

Today’s passage also returned to a theme of his leadership contest in noting that new Labour had begun in the mid-1990s as an open and insurgent project seeking broad alliances for a vision of change, but had surprisingly narrowed into a rather dogmatic ideology, too attached to the status quo to challenge the forces of conservatism as it once had. So Ed Miliband certainly finds much to study and emulate in the way in which early New Labour made a broad one nation appeal to the country, probably finding considerably more of value of what Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair did when they “owned the future” than the advice they now offer as elder statesmen).

What should be preserved from the market?

Ed Miliband made his own social democratic case for Blue Labour, by focusing on those parts of that project which involve seeing the limits to markets as well as their benefits, and being willing to check markets in the name of other social goods.

Some have presented this as a nostalgic vision of the past. The Labour equivalent of warm beer, bicycling maidens and the thwack of leather on willow.

(For those who don’t recall, that was something John Major said).

I think this is to wholly misunderstand what this is about.

It starts from what we see in our country. A sense of people being buffeted by storm winds blowing through their lives. A fear of being overpowered by commercial and bureaucratic forces beyond our control. And a yearning for the institutions and relationships we cherish most to be respected and protected. You see it in the concerns people have about what is happening to their local high street, post office and pub.

The sense of loss in Birmingham from the takeover of Cadbury's. The football supporters fed up with billionaires who see their clubs simply as financial assets.

The campaign to stop the Port of Dover being sold off to the highest bidder.

The justifiable suspicions people have about the Government's real agenda on the NHS.

We can't save every pub. We don't want to preserve every high street in aspic. And we can't stop the takeover of all British companies.

But let's face it: our apparent indifference to some of these issues told people a lot about us. It made us seem like remote technocrats who defended the market even when people wanted protection against it. And it spoke to a deeper sense about us.

Were we really people who cared about or defended traditional British institutions?

The answer to that was no. There may be real trade-offs here. “We can not save every pub”, nor become economic protectionists. But Ed Miliband’s appreciation of Blue Labour insights involves an acknowledgement that New Labour ‘s neophilia meant that it did not care much at all “about defending traditional British institutions” – with that great Fabian exception of the NHS – as seeking to invent new, with little success, millennial traditions of its own.

Miliband grew up politically observing the radical contradictions of Thatcherite Conservatism: that uneasy combination of market liberalism and social conservatism must choose which to prioritise when there is a clash between the creative destruction of markets and the traditions and institutions which conservatives seek to protect from change. Thatcherism’s commitment to markets made it ultimately a disruptive and anti-conservative project inspired by the radical market liberal right.

That history is echoed in Miliband’s challenge to the Coalition for having “an almost Maoist contempt for any institution that doesn't conform to their ideological beliefs” – language previously used by the Business Secretary Vince Cable, as reported by Andrew Rawnsley, and later outed by the Telegraph sting.

The new politics of inequality?

Ed Miliband offered another counter to a recent party debate in arguing that Labour ought not to see tackling inequality and supporting aspiration as a trade-off, though he will have more to do to make the case, and identify the means, for a greater weight on interventions to affect the 'pre-distribution' of earned incomes, rather than relying heavily on later redistribution through tax and benefits.

Opinion within the Progress right is divided about this. Some retain a residual fear of the implications of explicitly talking about inequality as Labour’s driving mission, but I suspect that many more on the party's right do not share that hang-up. That argument appeared to be largely settled a few years ago, and the fear is much less plausible when both Coalition parties have adopted the rhetoric of more equal life chances. (When George Osborne can say he thinks it is important to narrow the gap, it would be odd if Labour chose to be the only party which felt that it could not).

It is also a rather recent misreading to see being in favour of addressing inequality as a “left” position within Labour debates, when it has always been a driving argument of the modernising and egalitarian social democratic centre-right of the party, exemplified by the emphasis which David Miliband placed on why he believes tackling inequalities remains Labour’s animating mission when speaking to Progress a year ago.

John Rentoul objects to Ed Miliband’s characterisation of Labour’s record on inequality, arguing that it is insufficiently proud of Labour’s overall record on poverty and inequality.

I am not sure about this challenge. Rentoul’s general point about Labour’s record being both more nuanced and rather better than general Liberal Democrat/Guardian discussion of this is valid. But Labour has a leader who knows each of the IFS’ poverty and inequality indicators – the Gini, 90:10 inequality and so on – inside out, and the speech describes the record fairly.

Rentoul’s objection to “People see a growing inequality between those at the top and themselves” depends on what Miliband – and, more importantly, people in general – mean or understand when they talk about “the top”.

Rentoul says the perception is wrong, because the Gini is no longer rising.

But this depends on what is meant by “the top”, and where they mean the super-rich, they are right. It is useful to Miliband to articulate that sense of dislocation felt even by those 10% from the top with what is going on among the top 1%, and especially the top 0.1%.

For example, this could be one reason why many higher rate taxpayers – including those on family incomes not much over £40,000 who are to lose child benefit - do not feel excessively exercised by the idea that a 50p tax rate which nobody pays on the first £12,500 a month, or particularly that they have so much in common with Boris Johnson, Fred Goodwin or Wayne Rooney. That may be one reason why a majority of 40p taxpayers support the 50p rate, rather than seeing it as a penalty on aspiration.

This argument over the somewhat totemic 50p rate does symbolise a significant difference in between the Ed Miliband analysis of southern discomfort to that of those like Tim Allan and Peter Mandelson. The Labour leader believes that their vocal objections to his challenging bankers' pay misreads the pressures and concerns on above-average earners in southern marginals like Reading West, where Ed Miliband has pointed out that the median income is £21,000.


Ed Miliband has been a collegiate party leader. That reflects both his personal style and instincts, as well as the politics of the knife-edge leadership contest.

He has been keen to offer all strands of opinion a fair hearing, and to be seen to do so, but must combine that by leading and define key debates about the party’s vision and strategy, and about the practical changes within the party which will be needed.

Today’s technique of respecting his audience enough to articulate areas of contention as well as common ground echoed his Fabian new year conference speech.

There Miliband, as a committed Fabian social democrat, warned against the idea of thinking, or being seen to think, that the state was always the answer by also championing Labour’s mutualist and cooperative traditions, as Anthony Painter noted for Labour List on the day.

The leader was also well received at Progress today. He will consider it important to have achieved that on the basis of having made clear that he remains a candidate of change, rather than more of the same.

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