by Rob Marchant
“The system has failed”, ran the original headline for the speech write-up chosen by the BBC, though they later changed it. But it has not.Britain has problems, yes. But it is not, in Cameron’s words, broken, however politically convenient it might be for either party to use that as a basis for change. And this was by no means a terrible speech; but its fundamental premise of moral decline was flawed, and it became a disappointing, and slightly alarming one.
In fact, in the wonderfully reassuring and welcoming bubble of a party conference, it is rather difficult to give a truly bad speech. The trick is not to sink into the soft, comfy armchair of audience acclaim and be drowned in its melting, enveloping embrace, like in some bad horror movie. Crowd pleasing is easy but, as Ed is only too aware, the real audience is outside.
There were some good things in the speech. Although even an outline of the solutions was nowhere to be seen, ultimately, the “squeezed middle” theme is a broadly correct analysis. There was the “You can’t trust the Tories on the National Health Service” passage on the NHS, made for the TV bulletins and an effective attack line against the Tories which will resonate.
But the speech was not about worrying Cameron (who I doubt will have broken sweat at any moment during the speech), so much as about convincing the public that Ed is prime minister material, and setting out direction of travel.
Ed was also lucky: the first-person “this is who I am” piece missed the news bulletins when the feed was cut off. (sadly, with the uncomfortably cheesy passage about his wife and the birth of his son, he was not so fortunate). Talking about oneself is always a risky business as a politician, which assumes the public has prior knowledge of you, and cares: there is always the possibility that the reaction will be “yeah. And?”
On the delivery, as ever, Ed’s somewhat melodramatic style and tone doesn’t help. The BT Conference Centre is not the Lincoln Memorial and Ed is not Martin Luther King. His pained expression when talking about the riots, for example, makes him look the lecturing liberal, a big turn-off to the public; and on phone-hacking, where he scored a notable triumph in the summer, he now sullies it by sounding holier-than-thou: “I did it because it was right”. The same judgemental language of “something-for-nothing”, “fast buck”, “trickle-down economics” was everywhere (the only phrase missing seemed to be “neoliberal consensus”, but more of that later). And “it’s just not fair” wants to be crusading future prime minister, but ends up with more than a touch of Kevin the Teenager.
But these are really pettifogging criticisms, things that can be remedied with time, experience and good advice. The two more substantive concerns we will come to.
There were two major strands of thinking running through the speech: the Blue Labour strand and the Compass strand. It was easy to see all three of “faith, family and flag” in the speech, although the “faith” part was more in the gospel-style delivery and the moral tone than any explicit references to religion. There was also clearly present the why-oh-why signature tone of Compass’ Neal Lawson, for example the implication that there had been a 30-year long consensus from Thatcherism onwards which New Labour did nothing to break: a direct lift from Lawson’s January Guardian article.
The confluence of two half-formed schools of thought showed through in the thinking, and leads us to the first, obvious substantive criticism: where was the meat?
It was the vision thing, indeed, and some of that is necessary; but vision cannot run the risk of being seen as empty words; nor as hopelessly simplistic; nor as something difficult to translate into a policy that the country will accept, even way off into the future. At some or other moments, it was all three of these things.
The first few words of the “real” speech were surely intended, together with Balls’ speech the day before, to kill, or at least draw a line under, the pre-eminent issue of economic competence. They didn’t. It is not enough to say, glibly, “I am determined to prove to you that the next Labour Government will only spend what it can afford.” When you have lost trust, you need actions, not words. Balls’ welcome gesture about accepting long-term fiscal targets was a start, but that is all. The personal commitment is fine, but no-one will believe it for a long time yet.
Similarly, there was the part about business: differentiating between “good” and “bad” businesses – “producers and predators” – and vested interests. But who is to define a producer and a predator? And why do it with a moral tone, alienating businesspeople as they eye suspiciously a party which they suspect will brand them all predators. Why not instead look for specific problems and fix them? On vested interests: as a basis for policy, he is right about corporates and Tories being too close. But as an attack line it is useless. What about us? The line that ninety per cent of Labour’s donations come from unions is a no-brainer rebuttal for the Tories.
The whole piece about business – nice Sir John Rose, nasty Fred Goodwin – was reminiscent of the original film of Wall Street, in all itsHollywood simplicity: the evil asset strippers arrive to destroy the company and throw the good workers into the street. Banks in general, too, are duly bashed, as ever, followed hastily by the rider, “Of course, the banks and financial services are important to Britain.” How do we explain to the poorly-paid, junior bank worker that the bashing wasn’t aimed at them? And this motif of criticism, followed by a covering “but”, was a recurring theme. But this is not proper policy. It is naïveté.
“Growth is built on sand if it comes from our predators and not our producers”, Ed said of Osborne’s claims. That may be true, Ed: but there is a bigger sin than Osborne’s, and it is a vision built on sand.
And the second, and much more dangerous criticism, is about denial. “Chart a new course” is a good, strong phrase for moving on. But when we hear the words “rip up the rule book”, many of us cock an eyebrow. The point being, if we were really doing something that breathtakingly radical, we wouldn’t need to tell people about it. They’d know. It’s like we’re trying to convince them.
The route we take to “ripping up the rule book” is through our moral compass, and here we are back to Neal Lawson’s clear influence on the speech. Again, we are the unique guardians of the moral health of the nation. A total of 40 times in the speech, we talk about “values” – a word which, for what it’s worth, to most ordinary people sounds like it’s coming from either a sociologist or a corporate brochure – neither greatly trusted in sceptical, post-modern Britain.
There is no greyness: our moral compass tells us things are either right or wrong. “It’s wrong. It’s the wrong priority. It’s based on the wrong values.” But values are a funny thing, aren’t they? Hard to nail. Subjective. Who says yours are right and mine are wrong? You have to be careful with values, you see. Others may not share them.
And so we work ourselves into a place where we feel we are radical. And we feel we have the moral high ground. And that takes us to another, more scary place: denial.
In the religious movement of Transcendental Meditation, believers practice a technique called “yogic flying”. They sit, cross-legged, the yogi induces a state of suspension of disbelief and tells them they are levitating; they, indeed, believe they are levitating. In reality, they are making an awkward shuffling movement which results in their bottoms being momentarily lifted off the floor. It is quite awkward to watch. Human sympathy makes you want to intervene. But they truly believe they are flying.
There were a lot of people – mostly energetic, idealistic young people – visibly enthused by the speech. Ed finished the words “the promise of Britain” and, without waiting for a single clap, the music started. As Florence and the Machine’s inspiring version of You Got The Love lifted the faithful, we were for a moment there. Justine smiled a genuine, dazzling smile at the crowd. A few tons of glitter confetti and it could have been a Democrat convention. It was difficult not to feel moved. We were in 1996, or some other such moment of self-belief, thinking that this was it: we were on our way back.
But we weren’t. The music faded and we were back in 2011. We weren’t flying any more, and the uncomfortable realisation set in that it was a mirage. That the press would probably kill us for this flight of fancy. That it was not Blackpool, 1996, but Sheffield, 1992. That suddenly the lyrics of the song seemed wildly inappropriate and a little, well, soppy for a political conference. That we were talking to ourselves. Again.
Back at home, outside our little Labour bubble, people must have looked on, bemused.
It’s a great song: but it’s just a song. Real life, and real politics, are a bit tougher.
Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour Party manager who blogs at The Centre Left