The Sunday preview: Ed Miliband’s conference speech

by Anthony Painter

Something isn’t quite gelling between Ed Miliband and the country. He’s taken over a brand for which people have an affection but feel it has lost its way – think Marks and Spencer before Stuart Rose. We’re not talking toxicity here. Many are sticking with it for now – though sales have slumped – but they are not going to do so indefinitely. The question is how the new CEO can convince people that things are really going to change.

Miliband’s problem is not that he is necessarily wrong in his analysis. The problem is that he is right- in many respects. And yet, despite this, people are not saying: “I think that Mr Miliband has it right on inequality, the squeezed middle and responsibility”.

And maybe that’s part of the problem – people just don’t think and talk in that way. People generally have a short attention span when it comes to politics and easily switch off on the occasions they tune in. It they hear think-tank-esque gobbledygook when they do, they just tune out again. It’s fine for resolution foundation to churn out stacks of graphs on rising inequality and static median incomes – they do it extremely well – but it doesn’t make for great political communication. And if you want to make a point about responsibility in society, don’t talk about the causes of riots being “complex”, because most people aren’t going to listen. The responsibility prospectus has to be painted in primary colours, not pastels.

There is even something to be said for Ed’s argument that the centre ground has shifted. It has. People are offended and angry about wealth without responsibility at the top of society. They know that we are not all in this together and feel mocked by a prime minister who claims that we are.

The mistake in the analysis is to assume that the centre ground has become intrinsically social democratic. It’s more complex than that. It was such an assumption in the face of the global financial crisis that led Labour to make a social democratic argument for re-election. With Which only 29% of the electorate agreed.

Cameron’s argument for the centre ground is that it was debt that got us here (not only public debt) so we have to get that sorted, clean up society, and get a grip on welfare and wasteful public services in process. Miliband argues that all this is too far, too fast. The problem Cameron has is that cutting the fat of public services will take a lot of the lean muscle too, while cleaning up debt seems to have driven growth to a shuddering halt – so the debt remains.

Broadly, public opinion seems to be in a different place to both Miliband and Cameron. People accept Cameron’s argument about debt and profligacy – public and private – dumping us in this mess. They blame Labour. They think that our society has real problems and that a sense of right and wrong needs to restored, but they don’t think we are “broken”, let alone “sick”. They feel that public services did become bloated and value for money suffered. Equally, they are committed to those services – especially the NHS – and are worried about both the cuts and Cameron’s reforms. They are pragmatic about public service reform – favouring it if it improves efficiency while raising standards.

In other words, mainstream Britain is pragmatic, economically anxious and keeps to a clear moral code. Cameron gets this latter point, but causes nervousness with the ideological nature of many of his government’s public service reforms. Miliband is fuzzy on morality and has yet to associate himself with mainstream pragmatism. Both are failing to convince in calming people’s economic anxieties. However, forced to choose, they go for Cameron over Miliband by some margin. A Populus poll showed respondents choosing Cameron, Osborne and Clegg over Miliband and Balls by 66%-34% on the economy.

So given where people are, how can Ed Miliband become Labour’s Stuart Rose?

– Ditch the inequality and “squeezed middle” language, but not the message. People just don’t frame things in that way. They are not going to concentrate on you long enough for you to change the way they frame their economic anxiety and feeling that effort does not result in just rewards. Even less are they going to engage in The Spirit Level style analysis and framing.

– Acknowledge disappointment in Labour. We have listened and we get it. This is absolutely key and must form the major portion and message of the first part of the speech. Remind them of the good – the improved NHS, the reduced crime, the investment in education. But then accept that Labour got it wrong economically. It didn’t regulate the banks properly. It allowed private debt to swell out of control. It should have kept a closer check on public borrowing in the good years. And it should have insisted for greater efficiency gains for the money that was invested in public services.

– Having established that you have listened and learned then move on to the present and future. Support the government’s objective to reduce the deficit – it has to be done. Then you must pivot. The government’s strategy is not so much “too far, too fast”, but “stalled and broken down”. It’s like a household faced with debts selling the family car to plug the hole, but then being unable to get to work. We need a deficit reduction plan – but one that works.

– The future matters as well. We have to build a different type of economy – one that doesn’t just return to the post-war cycle of debt and bust. That means investing in infrastructure, skills, housing, innovation, science, encouraging saving and renewable energy. The government says all the right things while doing few of the right things. Labour will help to build a new British economy – one founded on good jobs and opportunity (and drop the “moral economy”, “good society” stuff, it doesn’t do anything).

– We must change the way we deliver public services. Labour won’t be ideologically driven but we will be reformers – where reform improves value for money and quality. That also means change for public sector workers but it will be change that will be achieved through consultation not provocation. Give examples: support new acadamies and even free schools and university technical colleges where they work. Support private providers in the NHS and GPs taking on responsibility for delivering more services. The test is one of improving quality and value for money not one of ideological purity.

– Finally, responsibility means responsibility for all. Labour takes responsibility for its mistakes – lead by example. The banks must take responsibility for theirs. We all must take responsibility to do the right thing even if the wrong path is easier. No ifs, no buts, the rioters were wrong and now they must face their punishment. Labour will never stand by while communities are threatened, terrorised or torn apart. That includes preventing it from happening in the first place – whatever it takes.

A speech with the following elements would project Miliband into the mainstream. It would get him heard. What’s more, it exploits Cameron’s weaknesses and plays to Labour’s strengths. It is a conversation with mainstream Britain rather than with the social democratic elite in newspapers, think-tanks, Parliament, and the party. It will begin the path of resuscitating a dusty and nostalgic brand and replacing it with something dynamic, relevant and new. The question for Ed Miliband is whether he wants to Labour’s Stuart Rose or its Peter Salsbury?

Who? Exactly.

Anthony Painter is a writer and critic.

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2 Responses to “The Sunday preview: Ed Miliband’s conference speech”

  1. aragon says:

    If you start by accepting the premise of deficit reduction then who is in Government becomes a rather sterile argument and it is an economic fallacy.

    Of course you need to use accessible language.

    Labour made a social democratic argument !

    I missed that one, New Labour operates as Tory Lite (and not particularly competently. I am amazed that the papers are referring Ed Miliband as moving Labour to the left at the speed of light.

    How could anyone vote for Gordon Brown ?

    Back to Ed: £6000 rather than £9000 tuition fees, is just pandering and not a defensible policy. Of course we all know who introduced tuition fees.

    Milliband is just fuzzy, and not at all ripping up the rule book or defying political gravity. He hasn’t the policies for it or the radicalism.

    How come just about every post on Labour Uncut is saying ‘Don’t frighten the Horses’, when he (Ed Milliband) has hardly moved from the conventional wisdom and policies. You even pitch it as a change of management, not of political philosophy, and economic policy.

    I am ideologically driven, it just my ideology is not neo-liberalism, we can not reduce politics to economics, especially as much of economics is ideological (not a science). Some of us never read, and choose to ignore, the rules. In politics the rules are a crutch for those without an ideology.
    (e.g. David Cameron).

    You can at least agree or disagree with an ideology, presentation and triangulation, are intended to obfuscate.

    Stella Creasy wants to make economic arguments against policies that are ideologically driven, as if PFI was ever intended as anything but a fraud on the public, by the non-ideologues for whom appearances are everything.

    I do not need to apologies for having an ideological position it determines my values and influences my decisions. I have a direction, purpose and objective, and it is not to be a better neo-liberal than the Tories.

    Re: Responsibility:

    You have a very simplistic view of rioters, and if you ignore the pressures that result in riots, they will only become more frequent. When the causes persist, social problems do not solve themselves.

    Obviously the Tories do not wish to highlight the failure of there economic and social policy, but to do the same is to abdicate the proper role of the Labour party.

    You don’t get heard by saying me too, to everything the Tories say or picking a fight over the of the number of angels on the head of a pin.

    I just didn’t want you to think that everyone agrees with you, Dan Hodges and the Blairites outside the echo chamber of Westminster.

  2. Richard says:

    Pastels contain all the primary colours.

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