The Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech and Phil Collins’ hook at the Progress conference

by Jonathan Todd

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, but to be Ed Miliband was very heaven.

Rejection of our Tory government has given us 824 new Labour councillors. Rejection of austerity by French and Greek voters presages a new chapter in Europe’s history. Everything seems to be moving in Miliband’s direction. He said this would be a one-term government and maybe it just might.

He began as leader by talking about the squeezed middle and was derided for doing so – but not now. As Alison McGovern noted, when introducing him as key note speaker to the Progress annual conference on Saturday, squeezed middle was the Oxford English Dictionary’s word of 2011. Just as it is undoubtedly worrying that the definitive English dictionary conflates the plural with the singular, even if these two words demonstrate our leader’s capacity to capture the zeitgeist, so too the potency of Miliband’s omnishambles line has been undeniable. No wonder Mary Riddell told the conference: “Ed Miliband has proved himself to be so far ahead of public opinion.”

A new dawn has broken, has it not?

Phil Collins opened his remarks to the conference with this quip. And the sun was shining on Saturday. But it was chillier in the sun than might have been expected.

Collins suspects the Tories will try to turn the general election into a leadership referendum. Recent polling gives some support to this view. He also expressed a “slight worry that the return of growth will let Labour off the hook of answering the key question: What does it mean to be Labour when there is no money?” We’ll need a return to growth, which seems elusive, before that becomes a live concern. But there are several crucial points here.

First, the possibility of pro-growth rhetoric, rather than the reality of growth, creating a false sense that Labour can get off Collins’ hook.

“The Tories failure”, as Andrew Adonis sloganised, “is deep and simple: pro-austerity and anti-growth. Our prescription needs to be equally simple: anti-austerity and pro-growth.” While, as Adonis acknowledged, “an urge for growth is no more going to work than an urge to go to the gym is going to make you fit”, a sense may take hold, as Labour’s long-standing stress upon growth is accepted from the White House to the Élysée Palace, that this stress can answer all questions.

How will we fix the economy? Growth. How will we pay for this or that policy? Growth. Even with the best possible set of growth-orientated policies, such answers wouldn’t entirely convince.

Not least because of the second issue involved with Collins’ hook: the continued inevitability of highly constrained public resources. Riddell rightly raised concerns about social care and argued that Labour should address these concerns as part of a “reworked universalism”. If we want decency for all of our increasing numbers of elderly and vulnerable then it will cost money, which will be money that we won’t be able to spend on other things.

Third, as Peter Kellner argued, voters want to be reassured and they turn away from parties that they regard as risky. Labour’s victory in 1945 and the Tories in 1979 now seem sea changes but Kellner claims that voters experienced them less as risky leaps into the unknown but as reassuring embraces of practical advances from failed status quos. There is every chance that voters may perceive the Tory status quo as failed at the next election but for Labour to be reassuring we cannot be unaffordable; we cannot evade Collins’ hook.

Did Miliband confront this hook in his speech?

Partially. He concluded the Q&A thus: “We’ve got to show we are a party for tough times, as well as good times, but also need to show that we are different”. That seems the very definition of reassuring, fiscally realistic change. But, apart from an emphasis upon securing a better deal from vested interests, the details of how this will be done were not fully developed.

Miliband’s main focus was addressing the profound anti-politics mood. Liam Byrne had earlier said that the public are “boiling with rage” with the government but that “their strategy for anger management is abstention, not a vote for the alternative”. Miliband cut a relaxed and confident figure, as at ease with his audience as his audience were with him, as he appealed for Labour to be this alternative.

In more difficult periods of Miliband’s leadership, his defenders have sometimes said: “He’s very charismatic in front of small audiences.” And his detractors have shot back: “Yes, so were Ted Heath and John Major.”

While Progress can’t yet boast an audience for its annual conference to match that which the televised leaders debates will attract at the general election, Miliband displayed poise and fluency that gives reassurance that should the Tories, as Collins suspects, turn the election into a leadership referendum then Miliband would be up to this challenge.

We’ll need, though, a more robust response to Collins’ hook if the Bastille is to be stormed, in a reassuring way. The warm and generous applause of the troops did, however, indicate that Miliband is a leader for which they are ready to walk into the bullets or at least onto the doorsteps.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “The Sunday review on Monday: Ed Miliband’s speech and Phil Collins’ hook at the Progress conference”

  1. swatantra says:

    The fact is ‘growth’ cannot be conjured out of nowhere and so far we have not had any plausible ideas from anyone.
    It also boils down to ‘confidence’ and so far we have no confidence in anyone.
    Economists need to be seriously getting down to how we engender growth and come up with ideas not slogans.
    Neither do we have the equivalent of the Bastille apart from ‘The Tower’ which these days doesn’t hold any political prisoners but only the crown jewels and the Kohinor stolen from Indiia. Perhaps Occupy would be better off storming The Tower and not camping outside the BoE.

  2. john p Reid says:

    swantantra hits the nail on the head again

  3. aragon says:

    We have a cunning plan, but we are not talking …

    Who are we ?

    A good question.

    I think therefore I am …

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