Ed Miliband’s Speech: The Battle Lines Are Drawn

by George_East on September 24, 2013

ed-milibandI have to say that I had little hope of feeling anything other than further despair from Ed Miliband’s conference speech this year.  Since the beginning of the year there has been a sense that the Labour Party had fallen back into its safety-first triangulation mode of the Blair years.  We had the depressing acceptance of Tory spending plans at the beginning of the year, the acceptance of much of the benefit reforms in April and then the absurd spectacle of Labour’s leader panicking in the face of the Falkirk non-story and threatening to defund the entire party as a result.   It has not been very edifying and has left me feeling more alienated from British politics than at any time since the Iraq war.

I also think it is no coincidence that since Labour started down this route that its lead in the polls has been slipping (though there appears to have been a shift back in its direction over the last few days) – it had demonstrated, as ever, a woeful lack of self-confidence by the centre left in its own ideas.  And if the Labour party is not confident in its own ideas, why should anyone else be.

Today though Ed Miliband, in his conference speech delivered what is potentially the clearest statement of social democratic intent by a Labour leader, since the days of the late great John Smith.

The themes were clear and built on the rhetorical idea of ‘one nation Labour’ from last year.  The emphasis is on living standards and the distribution of the fruits of growth.  What limited economic growth there has been (after the slowest recovery in 100 years) under this dreadful government has not reached the vast majority of people in the country.  It has been concentrated in London and the South East and largely driven, once again, by a housing boom.  Living standards for most people continue to fall, while the bankers and the wealthiest prosper.  This is wrong and needs to be changed.

As Miliband also identified the Tories (and Lib Dems) have concentrated virtually all of their fire on the weakest and most vulnerable in society.  Wherever strong and vested interests have been involved, they have rolled over to have their tummies tickled.  This has been one of the themes of many of Charlie East-West’s posts – that those with the narrowest shoulders rather than the broadest have been asked to carry the brunt of the weight of austerity.

However, the speech was also optimistic.  Taking from Britain’s experience of the war and the post-war Attlee government: that it is out of the worst times, the best times can come.  This does not have to involve, as David Cameron and Nick Clegg, appear to desire a race to the bottom, with ever lower wages and ever more insecurity for most, while basic living costs increase.

We now though also have some clear policies putting flesh on this.  And some of this is surprisingly radical.  The pledge to repeal the evil bedroom tax and Lansley’s privatisation of the NHS by stealth by the Health and Social Care Act are both welcome and against the clear desires of many of the uber-Blairites in the Party.   However it is the positive rather than negative policies which, for me, have been the biggest surprise but the most welcome.  Two in particular, encouraged me.

The pledge to build a million homes and to prevent private developers land banking (allowing local authorities to compulsory purchase empty land where it is not being developed) will at once provide much needed stimulus to the  economies of the English regions, create jobs, and increase housing supply thereby dampening house price inflation and will reduce housing costs.

Similarly, the pledge to freeze energy prices for two years tackles one of the most iniquitous consequences of the utility company privatisation of the 1980s and 1990s, where private monopolies were created who do not invest properly in energy infrastructure but cream off enormous profits, from customers who have no choice but to pay.    The whole energy market needs to be reformed and this is a good first step.

These measures are evidence of the implantation of ideas arising out of the horribly-named wonky concept of pre-distribution.  Instead of giving people more money ex post facto through a redistributive tax system, you reduce their cost of living or put more money in their pockets through wage increases.

This is the third decent leader’s conference speech in a row that Ed Miliband has made.  In 2011 with his predatory versus productive capitalism speech he made precisely the right demarcation between the glorified gamblers of the financial sector and productive businesses who actually add value.  In 2012 the One Nation Labour concept was clever positioning, appropriating a Tory phrase to emphasise how the Coalition governs in the interests only of a tiny elite.   However, in both cases there was virtually no follow up and certainly no joined up thinking.  The big test this year is to ensure that the momentum of this speech is continued now and for the next 20 months until the election.   Labour supporters and activists will feel energised and that they have something to fight for.  This cannot be lost.

It was not perfect – far from it.  There is still a  lack of clarity over HS2, there needs to be similar measures on the disgraceful levels of rail fares, and I would like him to have gone way further on the income side of the equation, pledging to adopt the living wage for the public sector or to move to higher minimum wage levels.   There is also the continued absurdity of spending vast amounts of money on that useless symbol of national virility, trident (though I understand that this has difficult Neil Kinnock-era resonances for the Labour Party).   I would also have liked him to pledge to take the railway system back into national ownership as franchises come up for renewal (a cost-less policy).

However, the clearest indication that Ed Miliband has achieved something with this speech is the sheer levels of vitriol being spouted on the right (and amongst a section of uber-Blairites), who are talking about a return to the 1970s.

The battle lines are now drawn and for once they are being drawn in the right place.  A solid 8/10 from me.


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