by Michael Dugher
As Ed Miliband made his way out of the conference hall after his speech in Liverpool last week, for some of the assembled political journalists, glumly “kettled” in a far corner of the conference centre, the story had already been written: Ed Miliband had “lurched to the left” with an address that was “anti-business”. Neither the conference nor the speech remotely warranted such a depressingly predictable narrative. But for some of the (Conservative-supporting) press, the facts must not get in the way of a good (or lazy) story.
By contrast, and by coincidence, as I made my way out of the hall in Liverpool, I bumped into two very senior business figures. One is a longstanding Labour supporter, who has made millions in private industry. The other has only recently joined the party, having retired from business after decades of running multi-million pound commercial enterprises. Both thought the speech was very good. They enthused about not only its thoughtfulness, but in particular its emphasis on the importance of business as a “wealth creator”, a line used repeatedly in Ed Miliband’s speech.
I too was struck by what I regarded as a firmly “pro-business” message the speech (the words “pro-business” were used no less than five times). He rightly held out the example of Rolls Royce as a great British company and he contrasted the behaviour of its chief executive, Sir John Rose, with that of former bank chief, Sir Fred Goodwin. Also, as Labour continues to berate the government for its lack of any industrial strategy, I was pleased that Ed mentioned UK train manufacturer, Bombardier, as well as the defence giant, BAE Systems, with workers from both companies still reeling from recent announcements of large scale redundancies. He recognised the importance of financial services to Britain, but praised those companies that “train, invest, invent and sell”. Indeed, he said: “The vast majority of our businesses have the right values and do the right thing”.
The truth is it is not “anti-business” to criticise Fred Goodwin or to condemn what a private equity firm did to Southern Cross care homes. Neither is it “anti-business” to say a future Labour government should challenge the big vested interests like the energy companies ripping off consumers. It is the right thing to do.
Neither did I think the speech was particularly “left wing”. Indeed, my impression was that Ed Miliband was leading a big argument from the centre-ground. He was tough on bad behaviour at the top, but he was also tough on everyone else. His belief in a “something for something” culture, whether that is in housing allocation on welfare payments, or directors’ remuneration, is a welcome one. He also highlighted many of New Labour’s achievements, telling the conference: “My party is proud of that record – and so am I”.
It is interesting to note that it was a Conservative, Edward Heath, who first used a phrase that would not have been out of place in Ed Miliband’s speech: “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. Only the loonies on the Tory right would regard Ted Heath as a “leftie”. Similarly, it was a Liberal, JM Keynes, who wrote in the 1930s something that Ed seemed to echo in Liverpool in 2011: “When the capital development of a country becomes a by-product of the activities of a casino, the job is likely to be ill-done”.
The truth is that Ed was making a big argument. To be fair, it may have come as a bit of a shock to some of the journalists. The speech was inevitably quite long, and political hacks, with the news desk breathing down their necks, were pressed for time. Perhaps that explains why so many went for the easy line. But, interestingly, others in the media in recent days have been more reflective. Peter Oborne, the Daily Telegraph’s chief political commentator, and not a creature of the left it’s fair to say, wrote:
“Miliband made an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate. He sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought. He has even made a tentative step towards tearing up the rules that have defined British economics for the past generation with his cautious critique of capitalism as it has been carried on here for the past 30 years”.
All of this is, of course, in marked contrast to what we have heard so far in Manchester from the Tories. George Osborne today and the Conservatives this week have talked a lot about growth. How much they are talking about it is, in itself, an indication of how little there is of it in the economy, thanks to their decision, as Alistair Darling said recently, to “squeeze the life out of the economy”.
We have also heard a combination of old politics and, frankly, new populism. As well as gestures to the right – EU referenda, scrapping the human rights act, making it easier to unfairly sack people – there has also been a drift to the right, with a series of light-weight offerings – £250 million for weekly bin collections, 80 miles-an-hour driving on the motorway, David Cameron’s “war on carrier bags” (to quote the Daily Mail headline).
In no way has there been any sense that the Conservatives are making a big argument. Perhaps Cameron will do that later this week. Perhaps. But for those of you who missed Ed Miliband’s speech last week, Labour is making a big pitch about what is wrong with Britain today and how the country can be better in the future. But don’t take my word for it. And don’t read last week’s newspapers. Watch the speech and decide for yourself.
Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East and parliamentary private secretary to Ed Miliband.