It already seems like a long time since Ed Miliband’s 2011 conference speech. That’s a good thing. As dust settles and the media reaction fades into memory, we are left with the actual content and what it means for the party’s direction of travel over the coming months. David Cameron didn’t mention Ed Miliband once by name in his speech yesterday. Next year, things could be very different.
In a recent collection of essays looking back at New Labour, Peter Kellner asks a really important question about the future of social democracy in the UK. Is the post-New Labour phase of social democracy going to be a purely defensive position that clings to all achievements in government? Or is it to be a project that sets out the framework for a new model of doing centre-left politics? In Ed Miliband, the party has elected someone who has opted for the latter. It is in this context that we should consider his conference 2011 speech.
Ed Miliband used his speech to assert that Labour needs to set its stall in a way that is radically different. The Thatcherite consensus of the New Labour period that was built on a sort of benevolent neoliberalism is now territory that Ed says, can no longer be occupied. What Ed Miliband is trying here is something radically ambitious. Like most things today, it has to be viewed through the prism of the deficit. And despite what some on the right (within and without the Labour party) say, the deficit, as high as it is now, is due to the global financial crisis.
There was a period during the worst early and shocking moments of the global financial crisis where commentators were saying that it was time to ask the big questions. The questions about how we let banks gamble with our savings, how we let them create financial products so linked to toxic debt which caused the whole system to unravel. Well those questions are now being asked by a leader of one of the major parties. This is at the crux of Ed’s point about how we can’t treat all business the same.
If Labour can get this right, it will deserve to be back in Government. If it doesn't, it doesn't. That is because voters so sick of Labour in 2010 won’t see anything different enough to vote for. Yes, Gordon Brown was unpopular in May 2010, but polling done by Stan Greenberg for RSA showed that Tony Blair was even more unpopular. Booing him at conference is another matter entirely, but the point still holds - New Labour was for 1997. And whilst understanding that Tony Blair was popular in 2005 and remains so with an important part of the electorate needs to be taken on board, 2015 will require Labour to be different and a lot bolder then it has been in recent years.
And I say 'Labour' because this is the important part. Yes, leadership matters. But what matters just as much is what Labour does as a party. Of course Ed Miliband represents at the national level, and there should be criticism to ensure delivery and messaging is coherent. But the party has to start making the case for this bold new cooperative capitalism that Ed is starting to sketch out. This will of course need policies in time to help construct argument around. But right now it’s about asking the right questions and showing that Labour has the right values to allow it answer those big questions. If it is done with with passion, unity and clarity - it’ll be a big part of making that offer to the electorate. And conference season 2012 won’t be one in which David Cameron can ignore Ed or the thousands of Labour party activists working to make this a one term Tory-led government.
Natan Doron is a Senior Research at the Fabian Society