Of drift and doubt: on Ed Miliband’s conference speech

Over the last few years of Ed Miliband’s leadership I have become used to being rather impressed with his annual conference speech and then finding myself gradually losing faith as the months have drifted by with little or no follow-up: indeed with little of interest emanating from Labour.

His latest speech yesterday – the last at conference before the 2015 General Election – felt like that whole year’s cycle compressed into an hour. Early promise – with a few interesting and engaging ideas – was followed by a whole load of drift interspersed with a kind of paint-by-numbers approach to pleasing the activists, notably by mentioning the NHS every few minutes.

Ed Miliband making his 2014 Conference speech
As the speech drifted, so I drifted and started thinking about other stuff, like: What’s for dinner? Maybe my toenails need cutting? Is anyone on Twitter being more interesting about the speech than the speech itself? (Answer: ‘Yes’). It wasn’t surprising to find out later that Miliband himself had forgotten whole chunks of what he was meant to say in the course of speaking – on the economy and immigration, perhaps the two most important issues of the coming campaign.

Nevertheless, some of the ideas and policies sounded pretty good. I particularly liked this section towards the beginning:

I’m not talking about a different policy or a different programme. I’m talking about something much bigger. I’m talking about a different idea, a different ethic for the way our country succeeds.

“You see, for all the sound and fury in England, Scotland, Wales, across the United Kingdom, what people are actually saying to us is this country doesn’t care about me. Our politics doesn’t listen. Our economy doesn’t work and they’re not wrong, they’re right and this Labour Party is going to put it right.”

This is the first time I’ve heard Miliband use the word ‘ethic’, and I think he’s exactly right to use it – for real transformation in society means a transformation of how we all behave – and that means attention to ethics. He followed it up with some powerful passages about how “a small elite” in our society basks in prosperity while many of us have effectively been told, “you’re on your own”: ordinary working people, young people without privileges, small businesses, the vulnerable and also in politics. “The deck is stacked and the game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power.”

This was good stuff, but questions and doubts were already starting to bubble up from my battered brain, and they came out properly when Miliband kept repeating how this all came together under the word...’together’. He said: “Together says that we can’t have some people playing under different rules, everybody’s got to play under the same rules.”

I couldn’t agree more, but this is not what Labour does.

As I have been writing here ever since I started writing here, Labour as an institution has fixed itself on a path whereby everybody definitely doesn’t play under the same rules. We grant special favours to women, ethnic minorities and to a lesser extent gay people and those who work in manual occupations – the latter an attempt to gather in ‘the working class’ to be part of our systems of favouritism.

This way of managing who goes where features not just in our internal party processes, but in our past and future programmes for government: if you come from a favoured group you get special favours under Labour. This is the opposite of everybody playing under the same rules, and it is also a negation of ethics which can have dreadful consequences, as with local Labour establishments turning a blind eye to industrial-scale child sexual exploitation by Asian men in Rotherham and Rochdale and other places.

Miliband said that the Tories “rig the system for a powerful few”, but we rig the system too – not just structurally but culturally – and to pretend we don’t is hypocritical.

I find it difficult to get angry or resentful at Ed Miliband though. He seems like a decent bloke, and I have no reason to doubt that he meant what he said here. I just wonder if he is totally in control of things. He seems to have no great allies in the party and therefore relies on strictly conditional support from Labour’s most powerful interest groups: notably the unions, women’s lobby, ethnic minority (BME/BAME) lobby and LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transsexual) lobby.

This means transactional politics: dishing out favours in return for support. One of the moments of his speech that most sticks in my head is when he announced the former Eastenders actor and MEP Michael Cashman as “our envoy on LGBT rights all round the world”. This is a gesture of the base, for the base and by the base; I don’t see how Cashman can achieve anything in such a role, and I imagine most folks watching at home don’t even know what LGBT means.

I liked Miliband’s stating a commitment to the environment and global efforts to combat climate change, though this did raise more questions than answers, like: how do you reconcile economic growth and plans to build millions more new homes and increasing airport capacity with reducing carbon emissions and environmental blight? I’m afraid that is a circle that cannot be squared, but it’s another thing from which we turn away out of political convenience.

There was more that I liked in the speech: some good attention to the NHS and the plan for a mansion tax (though Andrew Neil on the BBC sent Labour spokespeople sprawling one after the other in their attempts to explain how this would work).

But as Miliband went on, his speech regressed. It became more and more a play to the base of activists rather than to the people out in the country, but even in doing that it drifted terribly. Many voices from in and around Labour and outside have been withering about it, which is a little unfair – but not that much.

The most cutting thing I have read about Miliband is an article from the Times columnist Jenni Russell (a former friend of his, and a member of the sensible but interesting left), published on 3rd July this year. It offered a pointed vignette of a party in the City of London to which Miliband turned up when most guests had left, got collared by a couple of drunks and had one aide who deserted him and another, “a youngster”, who was left flapping around not knowing what to do because she didn’t know anyone there.

This is the basics of politics, and it’s startling how after four years as leader, Miliband is nowhere near having mastered it.

Russell also pointed to how Miliband and his office operate: 

Nobody outside the leader’s office has a good word to say about it. It is secretive and unresponsive, internally riven, bad at building alliances either inside or outside the party, and obsessed with hoarding its own power rather than building Labour’s influence.” She added: “One senior Labour insider told me how depressed he is by what seems to be an arrogant indifference from both office and leader to other people or to challenging ideas”.

Now, say what you like about New Labour, but this is quite a contrast to the way its inner circle operated. The late Philip Gould for example emphasised how there were plenty of differing, strong voices in the New Labour hierarchy:

 Successful campaigns are built...on the synthesis of contrasting ideas and contrasting policies. One of [Tony] Blair’s great strengths as leader is that he understands this, and is able to make it work. He wants the best and he wants ideas and strategies to be tested and debated. He is only confident in an idea or a person if it has come through the fire. This is as true for himself as for others; he distrusts people who agree with him, he wants to be taken on.”

If the policies that Miliband and other Shadow Cabinet members outlined at Conference have not been put through the fire (and there are plenty of signs this is indeed the case) then things do not augur well for Labour in the coming campaign and in government if we manage to squeeze back there.

All of this feeds back into nagging doubts of people who want to support Labour – that we are not really serious and do not have enough confidence in ourselves: that we do not want to win enough to deserve winning.

With the Tories and Liberal Democrats in a similarly poor state, it looks like being a thoroughly depressing election campaign – and that is from someone who detests them to begin with.

For more on similar topics, see The Labour Party and other party politics page.


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