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