I said I’d come back to some thoughts on Ed Miliband’s speech but then the Daily Mail carnival came to town and I didn’t really want to stroll through the sideshow with you. No offence. I’m sure if we could rustle up some candy floss from somewhere it could’ve been fun but I just wasn’t in the mood. The Mail was (as it so often is) like the screams of every single person on every single ride at a fair, only the rides are shitty feeble things not worthy of all that fuss. Don’t get me wrong, I think what the Mail said was low but it was also absurd. Even the on the Mail’s most knicker-knotted day nobody there can seriously believe that Ed Miliband wants to take his party to the far left. Surely? The Mail’s attack of the vapours was an extreme response to the question many of us must have been asking though: what did Miliband mean when he said Labour are bringing back socialism? What does Labour stand for these days?
When Newsnight asked what Miliband meant, after the Mail kicked off, it suggested Miliband is taking Labour back to 1983 as if it’s accepted wisdom all of a sudden but I found something interesting when I was puttering around on Google. First I’d read Miliband’s speech. Have you read it? Ok. Now read this from Tony Blair in 1997. We’ve gone from spotting what’s missing from the picture in my first Labour Conference post to a game of spot the difference. His language and tone are hardly miles away from Blair’s in the opening section of the 1997 Manifesto. This spurred me on to read Labour’s 1983 manifesto. Stylistically, it’s a very different affair to the 1997 manifesto and Milliband’s speech. Less polished, which isn’t surprising, but it also has a less jingoistic feel. I’m not saying I agree with everything in it and some pledges are unfeasible 30 years later but others are making the comparison between Labour now and Labour then and Miliband himself said Labour’s returning to socialism.
Naturally, there are some similarities in policies between the 1983 manifesto and Milliband’s speech but look at the things you won’t see today. No rent cap. No promise to scrap Trident. And no promise to renationalise privatised services. I’m not even convinced partial privatisation of services in the NHS and probation and courts services would be reversed under Labour, if and to the extent the Government has implemented reforms by 2015, but even if it does it’s a far cry from a sweeping policy of renationalisation of assets, production and services and at the heart of socialism lies nationalisation. When Miliband criticised energy companies, he wasn’t criticising the concept of privatisation. He was saying it should create a genuine competitive market which doesn’t exhibit cartel behaviour. Blair said the same thing in 1997. Where Milliband departed from established wisdom is by saying that if they don’t stop abusing their position, they will find their prices rigged in the opposite direction. Every party agrees that energy is a hot topic. It reminds me of being polled sometime between 2001 and 2003, before I learned to drive. The pollster read a list of issues and asked me to tell her the most important one to me. When she got to petrol prices and I didn’t jump in to say that, she repeated it in case I hadn’t heard her. So many people had listed it as the single most important issue to them that she couldn’t believe I didn’t. It goes to show just how closely our political opinions are tied to our household budgets. It’s only natural politicians want to give us a palatable solution to rising energy bills. They don’t need to give a damn about rising fuel poverty to know energy prices can’t be ignored.
Because time has passed since Miliband’s speech, we now know that the optimism some people felt after it may very well have been misplaced. I have to admit that until I started looking more closely at what was and wasn’t being said on employment and social security for my first Labour Conference post I felt a flicker of excitement myself. Thinking about the similarities to Blair’s manifesto afterwards, I wondered why we wanted to believe a new dawn was coming. I suspect the answer is that Blair was a snake oil salesman. I never trusted him. Miliband has sincerity going for him. He comes across as value driven, an ideologue, not a suit. To some people, this gets put alongside his Mr Nice character and counts against him. He’s often criticised for seeming a bit too laid back and nice, maybe leading to concerns he can’t quite see what’s at stake or that he’s too soft to deal with Cameron. He’s not statesmanlike enough. His characterisation as Wallace plays on this in a pretty obvious way and if you put Wallace in the ring with Preston, it’s hard to see him making it out in one piece without Gromit (and no, I don’t see Ed Balls in the role of Gromit). It was interesting that in a BBC interview about the Mail’s Ralph Miliband story, Ed Milliband appeared mild and smiled frequently when he was clearly furious. It really does seem to be his default setting. Remaining calm can be reassuring but it was always inevitable that some people would ask whether the duck’s paddling under the water or just drifting along with the current. I have personal reasons for not underestimating him – it’s easy for people to underestimate me for similar reasons (too laid back, too pleasant, too prone to making jokes, too drawly) – so maybe I’m imprinting my own experiences onto him but there’s no reason to think he’s not actually ambitious and pragmatic.
On the Monday, before Miliband’s speech but after he promised to bring back socialism, Newsnight called for Labour to appeal to Middle England and banged on about the “conservatory” test. If you haven’t heard of this, the idea is that to get enough votes to win a majority Labour needs to appeal to people who have or aspire to have a conservatory. Apparently Blair targeted people using this test in 1997. I’d quite like a conservatory if I moved to an area where house prices weren’t so high but Labour needn’t sit in the centre on my account. There appeared to be a suggestion again that Labour needed to move right on “welfare” and immigration. Rachel Reeves was on the show (a return visit after the whole “boring snoring” thing) and defined helping people with the cost of living by reference to the minimum wage up to the “squeezed middle”. So, shortly before she was shuffled into the Shadow Work & Pensions job, she didn’t include unemployed people or people unable to work in the list of people who need to be rescued from rising inflation. I can’t say I’m altogether surprised by her interview with the Observer last Sunday.
I’ve mentioned Newsnight in both this post and the one on social security. I know everyone’s getting in the act of accusing the BBC of bias these days but I’m finding that more and more I’m asking myself how often Labour allows itself to be led by the editorial content of the media. As I said in In a spin, it’s not just the policies themselves that I want to see improve from Labour. The sense that they’re reacting to (often quite lazy) reporting and editorials (across the board, not just at the BBC) instead of setting the agenda, selling it and sticking to it is a far greater flaw to my mind than Miliband’s personal presentation.
What it all boils down to is this: I’m still not satisfied, particularly with policies that seem to be designed to appeal to lower to average income Tory voters without any attempt being made to move people in the centre to the left. Despite Milliband’s speech putting a spotlight on a few areas which are key to me, the past few weeks suggest to me that Labour remains determined to steer a course between the rocks of the left on the one hand and the hard place of general centrist ideology which many New Labour voters were comfortable with (and which Cameron claimed as his own between 2006 and 2010). The challenge for Labour if it wants to do that is that it It can’t ignore its left wing supporters, not because they’re likely to vote for anyone else in 2015 but because a public stink over Labour’s failure to meet left wing expectations would make its leadership look weak and put the centrist voters off because they’re already not convinced that Milliband has the necessary leadership skills to be pm. You only have to look at coverage of Labour’s relationship with the unions to see that. Labour is trying to please as many people as it possible to please: here’s a red rose for you disabled person, here’s one for you working mother, here’s one for you unemployed school leaver, here’s another one for you graduate living with their parents…you get the idea. Or, to go back to the fairground analogy, it’s like Labour’s operating a ring toss where we all get to pick our favourite toy or goldfish but the toys are badly stitched and the goldfish are already in advanced old age.
As for the Mail, although the Miliband family are (rightly) distressed by the way the Mail went about it, it’s arguable if you want to be cynical that the Mail did Labour a favour by telling everyone to watch out for commie tendencies. Their reaction was, unwittingly, in the best traditions of the fair. We were supposed to be looking for socialist policies but the shell game meant we ended up with a Marxist under every cup. Where’d reality go? “Why, sir. Look. What’s that behind your ear? It’s Rachel Reeves being tough on social security. Now, I have nothing up my sleeve, except a new-found tolerance for free schools.”