Grinning, young, confident, Labour leader Ed Miliband strode across the vast forecourt of the Liverpool Conference Centre, towards a date with destiny — his first leader’s speech to the party conference. He was resplendent in a purple tie, the new colour of Labour, blending red and blue together. His partner walked hand-in-hand with him, in a purple summer dress. They were meant to give the appearance of being young, happy and striding into the future, but one couldn’t help but feel that she looked like a mulberry, and he looked like a Muppet.
Inside, that impression was not dispelled by his speech, which, while not short of content, had the feel of an address by the Wolverhampton Primary Care Trust manager to a north-west regional train-the-trainer weekend. It was the pitch of a nice man trying not to be, reminiscent of Raymond Chandler’s comment on B-actor Audie Murphy, that he was a small boy’s idea of a tough guy.
You’d know he was a younger brother, even if you didn’t know he had a brother. He has been simply, terribly, unlucky in the apportionment of features — his brother David got father Ralph’s golem solidity and his mother’s elegant face; Ed got his mother’s slightness and dad’s skew-whiff eyes, which cluster around the top of his nose like a difficult snooker. David’s voice is like clear running water; Ed’s is the automatic menu on a phone top-up service. Were David across the dispatch box, David Cameron would look like a pink choirboy, the vicar’s favourite; across from Ed he looks like Frederick The Great.
Yes all very superficial, lookist and unfair, but you can bet it’s thoughts such as those that contribute most to Labour’s mild depression. It is not after all, in a desperately bad electoral position — it would only need to take 30 seats from the Tories at the next poll to be back in power, and is facing nothing like the hopeless decade that the Tories stared up at after the 1997 160-plus seat loss. They could reasonably expect that the Lib-Con coalition will face years of global stagnation and local blame for it — and be there to benefit from voter’s remorse. Sure, a little re-establishment of economic management credentials, but most of what’s needed is projection of power and authority. Yeah.
The Blairites wanted Miliband, David, not merely for the strong jaw line, but for the strong mass line. Though Labour lost five million voters in 2001, and has yet to get them back, it believes that the only way to victory is to stay on the centre-right, and compete for the young and addled voters who could choose just about anyone, save for Sinn Fein, and even then … they accept that Ed won the leadership by using the complex arithmetic of the selection process and appealing to the trade unions. But now that’s locked in, they thought he’d get back on the straight and narrow, right?
Nuh-uh. Miliband’s speech, repudiating large parts of the Blair-Brown inheritance, was instantly labelled “the return of Red Ed” by most of the press, gleeful that he would steer the party on a course allegedly unwanted by a majority of MPs (pretty true) and the public (much less certain). Speaking of Labour’s failure to “remember its wider responsibilities” and its negligence in “letting capitalism off the leash”, Miliband explicitly rejected the “endogenous growth” model that Gordon Brown had effectively designed as New Labour’s social contract — ramrod growth, thereby expanding the tax take without raising rates, plug that back into improvements for the bottom third, and they will then be as completely comfortable with “people getting filthy rich” (Peter Mandelson) as Labour had become. Brown, the former socialist, went at this with deep vigour, flattering and hobnobbing with the bankers, knighting notorious downsizer Fred Goodwin, and, just in case anyone missed the point, putting Adam Smith on the £20 note instead of Elgar.
That might have worked, had opportunity increased. Poverty was alleviated but deepening inequality generated — surprise surprise — increased exclusion, atomisation, and anger. In answer to this failure of capitalism, including Labour’s pursuit of private finance initiatives, deregulated banking, etc, Miliband proposed an immediate program of democratic socialism with distributed public control of major institutions and an appropriate private sector set within it.
Sorry, I misread my notes. He promised instead a “new type of capitalism” one that cares for people, to recover from the disaster of Gordon Brown’s er “new type of capitalism” that had solved the problem of boom and bust. For all the noise about rejecting Blairism — “I’m my own man!” he said. “I’m not Tony Blair,” he went on to say” … or Gordon Brown, “great men both” but guess where the cheering had started (and on which name there was a chorus of booing?) — much of the speech was a refashioning of their core argument, with some renaming: “the closed circle” replacing “social exclusion”, etc, etc.
Though some of his proposals such as employees on company boards was cutting edge for Britain — i.e. for West Germany in 1962 — his suggestion that the UK had been run in the wrong manner for “decades” was short on details of what he’d do about bad capitalism, in order to make it good capitalism. The sense thus remained of the moral impasse — that we should let a system we characterise as immoral continue — and in doing so, structure people’s lives, relations and selves — and then “moralise” it by mitigating its worst effects through redistribution. That may jam the Tories up, but there’s not much Jerusalem.
Of course one doesn’t actually expect the leader of the Labour Party to get up and announce a socialist program — but given that impossibility, the modish tendency towards deep critique is rather wearing. If there was more talk of bridging institutions, new ways of running public, economic affairs, etc, one would feel more encouraged. To be fair, other reactions from the Left were a lot more positive, even if the adenoidal twang kept the energy levels at flat lining. Miliband made a joke about his recent operation for a deviated septum — “once again moving towards the centre” — but it was possibly ill-judged (“he sounds like that after the op?”).
So no unvarnished triumph, but it was after all, 2011, and no one gives a rat’s. There was more energy and attention to the announcement by BAE systems that it was losing 3000 jobs in Birmingham — another city to add to the list of those it has flattened over the past decade. This is news of the type that has union leaders talking of “everything necessary including civil disobedience”.
And in the middle of their undiminished triumph over tackling Murdoch on phone hacking, the pitch was ruined by shadow minister Ivan Lewis suggesting a licensing system for journalists (Bolt will get one, when he’s had his shots), which had to be repudiated by Miliband in nanoseconds. Luckily there was no pushback. Miliband’s speech went off the air on all broadcasters for 20 minutes. No, no pushback at all. One will watch Red Ed, born to the purple, with interest, but at this stage, as the frog said, “it ain’t easy being green”.