Anthony Painter solves the traditional last minute scramble to finish the leader’s speech by providing a final draft, ready for delivery, four days early
Ed Miliband speech to Labour conference, Manchester 2012
*Check against delivery*
It is now half a decade since a financial storm lashed against these shores. A few spots of rain at first then became a torrent and flood. With quick action we limited the devastation but still the damage was still immense. No one was prepared but luckily we are resourceful. And yet, half decade on, we look on at the debris and desolation with a sense of regret: how did we end up here?
It is fine to look back and say what might have been, what should have been. And we all – across the parties – need the humility to admit that more should have been done to spot the weakness in our defences and ensure we were better prepared. Our financial system was not sustainable. Or economy was unbalanced.
Our opponents want to turn this into a party political blame game. I understand that impulse but we all must take responsibility.
And at just the time when trust in our representatives was at a premium, we let the British people down.
They should have been able to expect honesty from those who hold their futures in their hands. And yet, many were on the take. At a time of confusion, we should have been able to turn in trust to those who we expect not to perform miracles but to at least share our basic values. As the expenses scandal took hold that line of trust was broken.
So it is little wonder that people didn’t feel ready to grant any single party a majority in the last election. Trust was broken. The financial storm was vicious. Optimism was lost.
Two years on, and too little has changed. We still are surrounded by the after-effects of the storm. Politicians are held in contempt. In some ways, it is worse: we now also know that certain elements of the media were failing to meet the standards we have a right to expect. I understand very clearly why people would turn away from politicians. And I understand why they think that none of us really have any answers.
Yet we have to move forward somehow. There’s a nation to rebuild. It’s now clear that the austerity-first approach has failed. I’m going to say something very unusual in politics: I think our opponents genuinely felt that they were pursuing the right course. But they got it wrong. Getting a judgment call wrong might be forgivable if you are honest about it and shift course. This they have failed to do.
So my real criticism is their failure to acknowledge their error and reach for an alternative. It was always a risk to cull youth jobs programmes before the recovery was properly established. The same goes for cuts to housing, infrastructure, new schools and other much need investment. It was a gamble. The coalition lost the bet on our behalf.
Again, the blame game is not enough. We must now move forward from here. My question for the British people is a simple one: faced with this challenge what would an ambitious nation do?
Sure, we can turn on one another, we can despair, we can throw the distrust that our politicians have too easily fostered back at the political system. But there is another way. We can understand that the choices are hard, the sacrifices are many, but we can emerge as stronger, more resilient, more optimistic nation once we have rebuilt after the storm. And that is something we simply have to do together- as a nation not as opposing tribes.
Optimism doesn’t require us to shy away from reality, however. In fact, it means we have to face it. That means accepting some hard truths. The deficit will dominate our politics for the remainder of this decade. There is much that we would like to do – cut taxes for the average family, expand social care, child care and invest more in public services – but this may all have to wait. If we find savings or we decide to ask the wealthy to pay more as they can afford more then it will be the deficit not new programmes that takes priority.
The current welfare settlement raises concern and anxiety. Its foundation of support is weakening and has been for some time. It is not enough for us to scream at the unfairness of the cuts despite many of those cuts hitting the most vulnerable. We have to show that we will not flinch from insisting that those who are able to work do so. Those who genuinely can’t need our support – we are a decent nation.
But we must return to the national insurance principle – we will help you sustain yourself. If we do not demonstrate this core principle in action then support for a strong welfare state will further drift away. More people will suffer in the long-run.
The same notion of contribution applies to immigration. If your skills can make a contribution to our economy; if you are willing to work hard and contribute to our society; if you help our public services meet our needs; then you may get to chance to come to live and work here. It’s a two-way thing founded in a notion of contribution.
And what a ridiculous situation where we are hampering our universities with a completely inflexible immigration cap- and harming our students in the process as universities are starved of income. Can you imagine the German government imposing a cap on the number of cars that its industry can export? That is what the government has done to British higher education.
I understand the government’s desire to carefully manage immigration but once again good intentions do not mean a successful policy. We will impose fair rules, strictly applied, but won’t cause the harm that the coalition has caused.
This is not about talking tough. It is about establishing the fair rules of the game – and enforcing them. This is an essential precondition for restoring trust.
There’s two sides to every compromise though. And this is where I have an ask for the British people. There is a different way open to us – one that reaches beyond the current malaise and creates a different future for us all. We will always listen and understand your concerns. In return we need a chance to lead the collective rebuilding effort. If we trust one another then we can rebuild; we can pool our collective resources and talents.
As a nation, we need to invest. We need 100,000s of new houses. We need to expand our skills base. We need to boost scientific research and technology. We need to rapidly improve our infrastructure – green energy, ready ourselves further for the digital age, and build newer, faster transport. We need new and innovative companies. The state must be nimble and smart in all that it does – it will need to change and pursue better value and greater creativity. We need to persuade the best graduates to open the minds and widen the horizons of our young. If we achieve all this then we’ll be ambitious nation. With the wealth we generate we can better protect security in old age and give new opportunities to the young. We can house the young couple starting out in their lives and generate jobs for all.
The coalition will talk about all these things but, I’m afraid, it is little more than talk. They talk of new housing, Green banks, apprentices, business banks, schemes aimed to allow people to buy a home, changes in planning laws: the list of initiatives, new brands, schemes, programmes and launches is endless. And yet, it all lacks ambition. They are tied to their miscalculation that has led the economy into a blind alley. And so all this amounts to little. We need to get serious.
I have talked in the past about reforming the where our economy works so that:
- living costs are reduced;
- wages are enhanced;
- banks are more geared towards the real economy rather than ever higher houses of cards;
- and we are better able to save for our futures.
I mean what I say but it will take time. The immediate task ahead of us is one of reconstruction. That will be our absolute focus. Changes will be made to shunt the advantage back to the ordinary British family. That is important but for now there’s a clean-up job to do. That’s our focus.
Even from where we now stand, we can invest. The other side of that is that we have to be clear that the deficit has to be reduced when it comes to non-investment spending. This will enable us to borrow with the confidence of the markets. We can choose to do the right thing in the present and the future.
But you don’t have to take my word for it – or that of the shadow chancellor. We have asked the IFS to comment and report on our Budget plans before the general election so they can assess how sustainable they are. That is a gold standard and we will completely transparent about what we plan. No opposition has subjected itself to such scrutiny ever. The principles are clear: invest in future, cut the deficit in a sensible manner that doesn’t cause harm, and independently verify our claims. This is a way that trust can be re-established.
It is in their darkest hours that nations show what they are made of. They can give up or they see beyond the despair. This United Kingdom has never been a nation to consume itself in despair. It is a place of hope. We are gritty realists, sure. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t seize the future and reach out with ambition.
We embraced democracy, the market economy, the open society and scientific discovery in the eighteenth century. In the nineteenth century we built great cities, industries, a co-operative and trade union movement alongside it. We created a police force, decent basic standards of working, sanitation and free schooling. In the twentieth century, we set upon building a welfare state.
We stood firm against Hitler and his allies. Having defeated Hitler – opening our doors to refugees such as my family along the way – we didn’t stop there. We then built a National Health Service, expanded education for all, and built the system of universities and colleges that we recognise today. Our technicians and scientists opened new worlds of technology, medicine and advance human knowledge. The digital revolution has British creativity and genius densely networked in.
And, in the twenty-first century our ambition is already evident. A Labour mayor and Labour government gazed upon a wasteland in the East of our capital. And in fairness, the current Mayor of London helped make it a success too – more for his personality than his dancing it should be noted. The serious point is that instead of succumbing to despair all these politicians grasped hold of ambition. The nay-sayers said it couldn’t be done – too costly, too incompetent, too big, too difficult. It was done. A mesmerising Olympic Park was constructed. Athletes were trained. Our Olympians and Paralympians showed world our British spirit. Gamesmakers gave generously of their time and their enthusiasm. The world will never forget a magical August in London 2012.
This is what an ambition nation does. London 2012 is who we are. Trust is scarce. The challenges are great. But we’ve done it before. And we can do it again. We know that we can not afford to let people down. We will not let people down. Ambitious leadership. Real change. Britain reborn. Trust in British ambition.
Anthony Painter is an author and critic