Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society conference

by Jonathan Todd

The Fabian Society conference marks the new year in Labour politics as the third round of the FA Cup heralds another calendar year of football. No matter how many bore draws football fans shiver through, irrespective of the persistence of interminable political speeches, we summon reserves of hope and forbearance to return.

Ed Miliband, however, thinks activists can have justified hope. We know this because he told pre-Christmas Westminster receptions of the unprecedented position of strength Labour is in for a new opposition. We know this because the Labour Party has announced 106 seats that we are targeting to win, many of which are now a long way from being Labour. We also know this because Miliband chose the Fabian conference to launch a more intensive differentiation of his Labour Party from both old and new Labour.

Andrew Harrop, general secretary of the Fabians, thinks Miliband is right to be hopeful, as he introduced Miliband by anticipating him leading a government as transformative as Clement Attlee’s. Polly Toynbee further reinforced this hope by later saying that Labour would have to try hard to lose the next election.

It is necessary to revisit the launch of a Policy Network pamphlet by Ben Jackson and Greg McClymont to appreciate the significance that Uncut sees in Miliband’s speech.

Here a consensus hung in the air: parties returned to government after only one term in opposition tend to run against not only the incumbent government but against the government evicted at the previous election. Margaret Thatcher ran against Edward Heath in 1979, as well as James Callaghan.

Soon after the Policy Network event, Uncut put the Policy Network consensus to Stewart Wood, Miliband’s chief strategist, and asked: When and how will Miliband break with the government in which he served?

He answered that this must be done from a position of strength, so that it is not seen as a rushed response to some day-to-day struggle, but as a fundamental realignment. Given that Miliband made much at the Fabian conference of establishing dividing lines between him and both the current and past governments, we conclude that the desired position of strength is thought to be here.

There are, though, different views in the party on the future of welfare, for example, and how we should think of our past record in government. One of Miliband’s questioners from the floor wanted Trident scrapped – not a position that would unite the party. The handout material from the Fabians featured Labour friends of Palestine, not Labour friends of Israel. The Labour humanists also appeared, while Miliband’s new year message praised a church volunteer.

We are ourselves a broad church, which doesn’t need Miliband to make us all agree about everything. We want him to lead us to government. The audience that Miliband needs to convince to do so, of course, is the electorate. To this extent differences of opinion within the party only matter if they negatively impact what the electorate think of us; if they communicate a lack of unity or position Miliband in opposition to Labour figures well-regarded by the public.

Tony Blair changed what the electorate thought of his party by contrasting New Labour with old Labour. The dialectical evolution with which Miliband seeks to define his party is more complex. While new Labour was necessary to overcome the hostility to enterprise and other flaws in old Labour, the weaknesses in New Labour must now be transcended by advancing One Nation Labour. This means rights and responsibilities, not just for those at the bottom of society, as under new Labour, but from top to bottom of society.

The nuance in this argument is considerable; asking a lot of the barely interested voter, who certainly did not grasp the implication of using a political frame derived from Benjamin Disraeli as readily as the political class. Thus, notwithstanding the divergence of views in the party, the bigger challenge for Miliband may be finding a language of popular resonance.

There is plenty of disagreement in the party. We wouldn’t, for example, agree about what, if anything, the last government should apologise for. But there is also plenty of agreement. Many would agree that Miliband’s announcement at the conference on private landlords has the potential to be an affordable road to increased social justice. Even more would agree – as the historically large attendance and warm applause for Miliband on Saturday attested – on the need to put aside smaller differences for sake of the unity needed to return Labour to government.

We are all united in wanting Miliband to find the words needed to convince a majority to support us. But further refinement will be necessary to justify the high hopes expressed on Saturday.

By inches Miliband’s rhetoric transitions from the think-tank seminar to being pub-ready. It is closer to being so than the big society, the central Conservative campaign at the last general election. But Miliband, as he speaks of a one nation prime minister being someone capable of walking in the shoes of others, must do more to speak in easily accessible terms.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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5 Responses to “Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society conference”

  1. Ex-Labour says:

    Millibands “One Nation” is utter tripe. Its only “One Nation” for those who Labour favour i.e. welfare claimants, immigrants etc. Who is going to pay for the financial largesse which no doubt will follow? Of course its those in work, those who pay their taxes, those who want to something better in life because Labour really do secretly despise these people. Labour have not yet produced any costed policies and as soon as they do and the majority of the population realise that they are the cash cow, just watch the 10% lead dwindle.

  2. Robert says:

    Very little policy in this article. On welfare, I think that Labour does not need to be much more radical than promising to raise benefits in line with inflation and guaranteeing a job to the long-term unemployment. On Trident, I would like to see Labour not renew Trident but will not go off in a huff if Labour decides to waste billions of pounds on a literally useless weapon.

    It is beyond me why Ex-Labour was ever Labour!

  3. Andy says:

    The current lead isn’t big enough. Historically, for the opposition to win the subsequent election, it needs to be considerably further ahead than at present for this period in a Prliamentary cycle.

    The thing that may change that is the unknown and unquantifiable damage that UKIP may do – provided it doesn’t start to siphon votes from Labour.

    As it stands, the next election is going to be fought on three things – Europe, Europe & Europe.

  4. Terry Casey says:

    Ex-Labour: No party will reveal policies this far away from an election and if you remember it happened with Cameron before the last election he consistently refused to answer any questions about policy, he was right, although lets be honest he implemented many things he never mentioned even during the election.
    I do feel Labour is treading egg shells though and I would be happy with a more aggressive approach. The Coalition were handed an economy with growth and have because of their Policies collapsed it, let it be known.

  5. Jack Cummings says:

    listening to some of the above makes me think that they should be living on a desert island were life does not touch them. labour, though far from perfect, have always looked after the working man. Labour brought in the NHS, workers rights, higher wages, safety at work to name but a few. I do feel though that labour over the past few years have lost their way. It is difficult to tell one party from the others. It should get back to its core and start again to build a party we all recognise.

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