Jonathan Todd on the long march from Manchester to a new socialism

Manchester, so much to answer for. And questions remain. We know that David Miliband, Nick Brown and (we hope) Red Ed will not be in Ed Miliband’s top team. This really was a “turn the page” election, but the next chapter brings questions as well as answers.

Let’s start with the positives. Simply having a new leader is a step forward. We’ve opposed an ambitious and fast moving government with one hand behind our back. Having a renewed ability to adopt clear positions, particularly on the deficit, liberates us. It is even better that these positions be taken by a leader with Ed’s verve and fluency.

It is imperative that the party unites as he does so. However, there is speculation that this won’t happen. Patrick O’Flynn of the Daily Express tweeted of Nick Brown’s exit as chief whip that it “just leaves him free to be chief whip for Ed Balls”. These big PLP beasts, as well as any disgruntled David Miliband supporters, must remember David’s exhortation on Monday: “No more cliques; no more factions; no more soap opera.”

The media will be loath, however, to see the soap opera end, as it will be to drop the Red Ed tag. Tories and Liberal Democrats will encourage the media, not least at Tory party conference, in this mischief making. Ed must provide the leadership, and we must get behind him, to fully escape the soap opera and Red Ed.

He may need to go further than imploring trade union responsibility in communicating to the public that he is not the trade unions’ man. The cuts which Ed should endorse in the comprehensive spending review are likely to generate sparks. But he must firmly maintain fiscal credibility and independence from the unions.

The TB-GBs mustn’t give way to the EM-DMs. The past, as Ed has repeatedly said, is a different country. So, we must do things differently: pulling together, not apart. This would be helped by having leading David Miliband supporters – Douglas Alexander, Tessa Jowell and Jim Murphy – in prominent shadow cabinet roles. Oxygen would be denied to Red Ed if these figures were on the broadcast media backing Ed, rather than Neil Kinnock talking about how he has got his party back or Charlie Whelan denying that he is “an unprincipled butcher”.

That Ed has ascended to the leadership with relatively few policy commitments enables him now to craft a distinctive policy package, which all wings of the party can champion. His speech made useful tactical moves – implicitly endorsing the Darling plan; acknowledging that governments, as well as markets, fail; recognising the importance of units of social capital, like pubs and high streets; reaching out to Liberal Democrats on AV, Lords reform and civil liberties. But his animating theme requires further development.

It would be a significant advancement to have this coloured by rhetoric as striking as that which David Cameron provided early on his journey to Downing Street:

“There is such a thing as society; it’s just not the same thing as the state.”

This indicated intent to move his Thatcherite party to the centre. (He has in government revealed himself to be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, particularly on economic policy). As well as moving his party away from its past, this line flagged its future (the “big society”) and critiqued its opponents (Labour’s supposed big government).

The whole Cameron narrative is there: Where are we? Labour’s big state. Where do we want to go? Cameron’s big society. How do we get there? Cameron will change his party into one capable of delivering his vision and the country will vote for it.

People, ultimately, didn’t vote for it in quite large enough numbers to give him a majority. But, still, we tend to underestimate him as simply a Thatcherite. While this accurately sums up his economic views, it doesn’t capture the significance of the big society, as a force for localism and public service reform, or the appeal of the coalition, and its attendant compromises, in a post-tribal political age.

Given this, and given that the government may be able to argue by 2014/15 that its tough medicine has done its job and better times are here, we must wonder: what will be Labour’s message at the next general election?

Ed needs to have our answer soon. Hint: big government – though it may be a caricature of much of what we did in government – should be avoided. Preparing the ground for the general election campaign must communicate that Labour has changed; making us newly able to rise to country’s challenges.

Ed should move quickly. Following the election of a new party leader “the moment for radical repositioning doesn’t last long”, as Paul Richards notes in his latest book. And defeat on the scale which we suffered in May – a 1983 vote share – demands radicalism. We have urgently to seek out and to occupy this political space. The long road from Manchester to a new socialism starts here.

In doing so, we must make ourselves into the political wing of squeezed Britain. Ed’s wonks should be beavering on policies to address its concerns. More urgently, language and positioning is required which brings all of squeezed Britain into the new generation.

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

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9 Responses to “Jonathan Todd on the long march from Manchester to a new socialism”

  1. glassfet says:

    “His speech made useful tactical moves – implicitly endorsing the Darling plan;”

    than explicitly ditching it in a TV interview the next day. Must try harder…

  2. AnneJGP says:

    I’m old enough to remember the struggle with militants & communist infiltrators, so I understand Labour people being sensitive both to the “Red Ed” nick-name and to the association with the unions.

    But even when Ken Livingston was London mayor, “Red Ken” was just as much a term of affection as a negative label. By now, it seems to me, the “Red Ed” tag is just snappy nick-name and neither Ed Miliband nor Labour have anything to fear from it – quite the reverse, in fact.

    In a similar way, it seems to me that the association with the unions needs to be redefined as a positive thing, rather than ducked in the hope that people don’t notice. Union militancy is only a footnote to social history books for younger people.

    I’ve read that many ordinary working people regard Labour as a party concerned only about benefit claimants and immigrants. A positive redefinition of union involvement in politics would be one way of re-establishing Labour as the party of ordinary working people as well.

    The thing is, redefining union involvement positively would entail union bosses changing too. When the BBC political journalists called for the strike dates to avoid the Conservative conference, the response from the union leaders sounded so dated – voices from the past, like Winston Churchill’s war speeches, especially with phraseology like “the enemy”.

    Union membership is dropping off. Working people still need organisations to speak for them but times have changed. It appears that unions haven’t. Maybe Mr Miliband can persuade them into his “new generation” project.

  3. AnneJGP – Really interesting comment, thank you. I’m more nervous about the Red Ed tag than you, it would seem. But I agree with what you say about trade unions. Working people, as you say, still need organisations to speak for them but times have changed.

    glassfet – Thank you. I’m not completely sure about that. I expect our position on the deficit to become clearer over coming days and weeks. It is important that we have a settled position that the whole party, particularly the shadow cabinet and PLP, can articulate and defend.

  4. Ayse Veli says:

    Clearly someone in Team Ed thought “New Generation” would be a better slogan than “Change”, which is totally wrong since Ed’s team includes many who worked for both Team Brown & Team Blair. It’s also too complex a slogan and will serve to disengranchise people. Ed’s team need to go back to the drawing board, and re-assess how they are going to sell this to non party members who don’t need to toe the party line of unity.

  5. John A Bateson says:

    One of Ed’s most brilliant comments in his conference address was his acknowledgment that Labour in govt had got it wrong on civil liberties. Jon Cruddas – rapidly diminishing in my admiration – maintains that only the so-called metropolitan elite are interested in such things. Not so. To attract a new generation, Ed’s conference theme, must mean to enhance liberty, as well as embracing equality.

  6. james says:

    I don’t understand why you are so down on Ed Balls, Jonathan. He’s been the only leading figure within Labour that has been able to coherently engage with the economics of deficit reduction.

    On TUs, times have changed by the essentials of a capitalist economy haven’t – that’s why the Red Ed type rhetoric won’t go away. As for the role of TUs, we have the most restrictive trade union legislation in western Europe – which obviously helps reduce the bargaining power of working people, and increase the bargaining power of capital.

  7. James – I am bemused and take exception to your assertion that I am “down” on Ed Balls.

    I say very little about Ed Balls in the piece above, but have previously praised him in my blog postings (see, for example, the “Balls and building Jerusalem” entry on my blog of 26 August this year). The force of his opposition to Michael Gove has been magnificent and his Bloomberg speech was the most intellectually coherent of the leadership election. I look forward to Ed being a key player for Labour in this parliament.

    There is, however, no getting away from the speculation that we will be disunited. Patrick O’Flynn’s tweet is just one example of this speculation. This is not to say that this speculation accords with what I think will now happen. Certainly, we are moving into a period where unity in the party is more important than ever. We must confound those who are anticipating disunity by being completely united.

    One thing that we must unite around is the position adopted on the deficit by the other Ed, our leader, and whoever he appoints as his shadow chancellor. The important thing, as I said to glassfet above, is that we have a settled position that the whole party, particularly the shadow cabinet and PLP, can articulate and defend.

    All best, Jonathan

  8. james says:

    Sorry, Jonathan – I misunderstood the “Red Ed” references at the start.

    I thought when you said “and (we hope) Red Ed will not be in Ed Miliband’s top team” you meant Ed Balls.

    My apologies.

  9. James – No worries. Thank you for clearing that up. Best wishes, Jonathan

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