A Rather Interesting Red Ed. (On Miliband’s Conference speech)

This article was republished on the same day on the blog Left Foot Forward.

Ed Miliband’s Labour Conference speech was full of interesting and important ideas, so let’s get stuck in.

As Daily Mirror hack Kevin Maguire said on Twitter during the speech, “Red Ed is back.” It’s a rather interesting Red Ed though –not the 1970s socialist stereotype that right-wingers have been lambasting.

Certainly state intervention is back on the table in serious form. The energy companies will be subject to much greater control if Labour gets into government, land speculation will be curtailed in favour of development, and state schools will permanently extend opening hours to make life easier for working parents.

Each of these policies are potentially problematic, and I have my fingers crossed they have been thought through properly and Labour has got its defences and counter-attacks planned well for the assault that began immediately even while Ed was talking.

The headline-grabbing act was the proposal to act against the energy companies by instituting a consumer price freeze until the beginning of 2017 (from the election in May 2015 I assume)

The more I have pondered this idea, the less I am disliking it: not because of the headline proposal to freeze prices though. This will be disruptive on its own and is potentially open to various forms of manipulation and abuse, but the policy that seems to underlie it is far more important. This, as shadow energy and climate change secretary Caroline Flint indicated after the speech, is to break the energy companies into their ‘upstream’ and ‘downstream’ elements –generators and suppliers.

Miliband has sent a letter to the energy companies explaining his position, in which he said:

"You and I know that the public have lost faith in this market. There is a crisis of confidence. We face a stark choice. We can work together on the basis of this price freeze to make the market work in the future. Or you can reinforce in the public mind that you are part of the problem not the solution.”

This seems to me a follow-up to what Ed said in his speech last year:

“I invite British businesses – work with us in advance of the next Labour government. Let’s refound the rules of the game so we have a One Nation business model as part of a One Nation economy for our country.”

The transcript doesn’t bring out the message as I took it at the time (and perhaps he said more in the actual speech). I took the message loud and clear that if business didn’t come to the table, then Labour would act without it.

Certainly, the aim to act on energy is sound. It is a public good: the energy companies are still called ‘utilities’; they are essential to a modern society and a modern economy; they do not belong in the sphere of unrestrained capitalism, and nor is that where they sit at present.

The major reason that Government, the media and general public have not been able to pin down what the energy companies are doing and how they really make their money is the way the biggest and most successful ones are ‘vertically integrated’, including upstream gas and electricity production, and supply to end-users (customers). This enables them to trade gas and power between their different arms through tax havens at artificial prices; therefore they can report profits where they like and tell everyone how their domestic supply businesses are struggling on low margins. This is about ‘transfer pricing’, a practice which become rife in our deregulated, globalised, brave new world of capitalism.

This is a shady world of speculation in which profits appear seemingly from out of the air. It is not completely unlike our property market, in which speculators make money by sitting on land and derelict buildings, not doing anything with them, and watching the price of those assets rise as the market gets squeezed between supply and demand. Meanwhile, ordinary people can’t afford homes to live in, schools and local authorities are struggling to find spaces for children, and the cost of setting up new companies and civil society institutions is prohibitive in some areas – London and the South East in particular.

Again, ‘One Nation Labour’ is right to address this issue, but the devil will be in the details of practical implementation and interaction with the companies.

Like probably everyone, I am completely in favour of universal ‘wraparound’ care in primary schools from 8am till 6am (conditional on it being affordable of course).  This is potentially a very popular policy with those eponymous ‘hard-working families’ and would be a realistic civilising measure for a world in which paid work is held up above all else.

I would like a bit more cultural acceptance within Labour for parents looking after their children though, and this brings us on to the ‘equalities agenda’ that figured later on in the speech – the section which was most directed to the core activist base in the hall.

Crowing about gay marriage, boasting of how Labour’s women “are not satisfied that 33% of Labour MPs are women, they want it to be 50% and they are right” and leading the clarion call for votes at 16 – these all play to the base, telling some of Labour’s dominant tribes exactly what they want to hear in the same language that they use. It should work in getting a core of existing young, motivated activists out on the streets campaigning for Labour, so in that sense it will succeed.

However this list actually offers a few pointers to longer-term troubles (which you might call 'existential troubles') on account of this ‘liberal’-left agenda having largely exhausted itself through its own success. Gay marriage has already been achieved (pushed through by a right-wing-dominated government no less, not long after the truly-revolutionary civil partnerships) while the 50% target for women Labour MPs could be achieved at the next election, largely through the ever-contentious practice of All-Women’s Shortlists in Labour candidate selections. 

‘Votes for Children’ is a standout new policy, but doesn’t have quite the moral force of 'Votes for Women’ or votes for the working classes that previous generations fought for.

In Labour circles, this agenda is largely about the practice of cultural hegemony. Labour’s dominant tribes thrive through the practice of identity politics – through gender, sexuality, class and, less powerful in political terms, race and ethnicity. The Labour women’s movement in particular has become an especially powerful political engine in the party and all its associated institutions.

Nevertheless, these concerns are mostly for days past and in the future. Votes for Children won’t be particularly popular with the existing electorate, but opponents will be reluctant to attack it for fear of alienating a whole swathe of future voters.

‘Blairite’ Labour outcast Dan Hodges also said a few things about the speech which bear thinking about.

In his Telegraph column, Hodges said, “it played to his strengths. Empathy, sincerity and – not a word always associated with Miliband – passion.”

And: “Over the past few months the Tories have been hammering Labour on a number of vital policy areas; notably the economy, immigration and welfare. But, rather than fight back, Miliband seemed to effectively cede them to his opponents.”

These are legitimate concerns, but this was a speech more about crowd-pleasing, with some of the crowd thankfully way outside the hall, barely aware of him or it. Miliband presented himself, rather well, as one of the good guys, part of a political gang you might not completely hate, with an optimistic message of hope including some genuinely interesting policy proposals that could make a real difference to ordinary people.

That’s surely good enough for now.


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