Kill Red Ed. Introduce Real Ed, says Jonathan Todd

This afternoon Ed Miliband will introduce himself and reintroduce our party to a country unfamiliar with him and wary of us. The country needs to get to know Real Ed before Red Ed compounds the hostility towards us. This introduction and reintroduction should be made with the narrative which he intends to articulate at the next general election in mind. The first steps he takes as party leader could determine whether or not this journey ends in Downing Street.

A useful political narrative should have three parts: an explanation of where we are; a vision of where we want to get to; and a plan for realising the vision. David Cameron’s general election narrative is predictable. He will describe a country recovered from Labour excess; festooned with the tiny platoons of the Big Society and the ringing tills of prosperity. Rolling back the state, he will argue, took us this far and remains imperative to taking us further into Cameron’s sunny uplands. Hence his commitments to have people keep more of their own money through reduced taxation and his warnings, potentially echoed by almost all of the media, of Labour’s high taxes and big government.

Ed needs to do more than attack this logic. He also needs to promulgate his own contrasting narrative. For his story to have traction he has to confront various realities this afternoon: preparing our movement for the challenges ahead and communicating to the country that the party is prepared to take the steps necessary to meet these challenges.

Reality one: Ed is unknown to most of the electorate. He has to define himself, fleshing out Real Ed, before he is imprisoned as Red Ed. As well as articulating the background and motivations of Real Ed, he should pull a rabbit out of the hat which is lethal to Red Ed. Death requires trade union leaders to be publicly furious tonight.

Reality two: The public have lost an understanding of what the Labour party is. Recent research by Policy Network/You Gov found that Labour is perceived as close to benefit claimants, trade unions and immigrants, but distant from homeowners, the middle class and the south. This suggests that, for many, Labour’s talk of fairness threatens to take something away from them, and people like them, and give to people not like them.

Reality three: Labour needs to change to win again. This is obvious if Labour claims to fairness are understood as I’ve just suggested. Labour seems to not understand those who wish to own conservatories or the stresses which have increasingly befallen these people in recent years. We need change in ways which directly address contemporary aspirants and insecurities.

Reality four: 59 percent of Britons, according to Populus, think that there is a debt crisis and the deficit must be dealt with. Unless we immediately indicate a firm and clear commitment to addressing the deficit, we will continue to be associated with high tax and profligate spending: a party that wants to take money from those who play by the rules to waste money on those who don’t.

The Republicans have recently signed a new contract with America. We should seek to renew our compact with Britain by reviving an offer with connotations of the 1990s: rights and responsibilities. We should, unlike in the 1990s, make as much of the responsibilities of higher earners, such as bankers, as the responsibilities of those at the other end of society, like welfare claimants. We need to renew our connection with British reciprocity. But failure to disassociate ourselves with wasteful spending and irresponsible economic management, which will be the consequence of any unwillingness to look the deficit straight in the eye, will be a real barrier to reconnecting with the public.

Today, Ed needs to hold firm on the deficit. By time the comprehensive spending review is published, he should have identified the cuts which Labour people will be able to point to whenever Tories say: “Well, what would you cut?” And this line needs to be forcefully held in the face of any trade union opposition.

We should offer beer and sandwiches to the Liberal Democrats, not the trade unions. Showing a willingness to find common ground with the Liberal Democrats, particularly on issues like Lords reform and a land tax where they may struggle to find common ground with the Tories, would emphasise that we are in tune with the post-tribal sensibilities of our age and guard against a permanent Tory-Lib Dem alliance, which is something for us to fear, not encourage.

The best instincts of Labour exist in tapping into the best instincts of the public. We shouldn’t speak as if to seek a halo – as Gordon Brown once again did to jarring effect in his speech on Saturday – but to be the vanguard of the better natures of everyday British people. These people are sensibly pragmatic. Let’s communicate this by being willing to compromise with others, especially the Liberal Democrats. They dislike extremes. So, let’s kill Red Ed.

And there are other roadblocks to us renewing our connection with them, particularly on the deficit. Let’s dismantle them. This will give us the freedom to craft a distinctive narrative to supplant that which Cameron will present at the next general election. Failure to do so would leave us trapped in his narrative.

Jonathan Todd is a consultant at Europe Economics and was a parliamentary candidate at the 2010 general election.

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