Miliband Fails to Convince
Much has been written about Ed Miliband’s Leader’s speech yesterday at the Labour Party conference and to that extent it succeeded. Attracting the attention of a fickle media and the commentariat is not an easy feat these days when Party Conferences have effectively been neutered and where rows or ideological debates are largely a thing of the past. But did Ed miliband actually say anything worthy of such enthusiasm?
It is worth stating that he started with pretty low expectations. Several opinion polls had showed a narrowing of the Labour lead and almost all polls show him trailing David Cameron badly as a potential Prime Minister and on economic credibility. He has also earned a reputation as wooden and simply not up to the job. So it was against this back drop that he strode out onto a stage with no notes, no obvious autocue and with a Tory blue background.
I know from personal experience that it is much easier to give a convincing speech when you are not tied to a script but it is also harder to maintain a clear and logical line of argument. To do this for over an hour without obvious slip up or loss of thread was undoubtedly an achievement, albeit others, such as David Cameron, have done this before. The delivery therefore was effective, and to some extent surprisingly so, but what of the content?
For a speech to be great it has to be more than windy rhetoric. It must have a substance which stands up to scrutiny and strikes a chord with the people outside of the Conference hall. The one element of the speech which seems to have attracted most comment is Miliband’s audacious move to define his party as a “One Nation” party. The move was a bold one but it is not new. Back in 1995 Tony Blair sought to do exactly the same thing. In fact many of the themes in Miliband’s speech were a direct lift from Tony Blair’s speech: “…we must move beyond the sterile battle between public and private sector to a sensible modern partnership between the two.” This is exactly what Miliband was saying in interviews this morning, despite his opposition to such a partnership in the largest parts of the public sector, namely the NHS and education.
The originator of the concept of “one nation” was former Prime Minister and Conservative Party founder Benjamin Disraeli in his novel “Sybil”. He highlighted the social divisions in Victorian Britain and the need for the wealthy to help the working poor. He was a reformer who modernised the Conservative Party to appeal to the newly enfranchised electorate but he was also a man who believed in protecting and expanding the British Empire whilst curtailing the ability of rival nations to challenge British hegemony. I wonder if Miliband has actually read “Sybil” or knows much about Disraeli and his beliefs. Boris Johnson summed it up well in 2010 when he said: “I’m a one-nation Tory. There is a duty on the part of the rich to the poor and to the needy, but you are not going to help people express that duty and satisfy it if you punish them fiscally so viciously that they leave this city and this country.”
Disraeli did not attack the wealthy, he sought to harness their efforts to the benefit of the nation. Miliband by contrast tried to define himself by attacks on “millionaires” and false claims that “millionaires” were receiving a “cheque for £42,000 from the government”. This is palpable rubbish! Millionaires may have assets which amount to more than £1m but it does not follow that they have taxable income of £1m per year. It is also a straightforward fact that when the top rate of tax drops to 45% next year it will be higher than for all of Labour’s 13 years in office, apart from the last couple of months. Miliband also ignored the fact that the Coalition’s raising of the tax free allowance for the lowest earners and freezing the point at which the higher rate of 40% kicks in helps the poorest and raises more from higher earners.
Miliband’s line that he would break up the banks is equally disingenuous. Under the last Government banks were allowed to merge and take over rivals to create huge banking groups which were too big to fail. The regulatory system was also emasculated under Gordon Brown. If Miliband and Balls (who were key members of Brown’s team) want to reverse the process now they will have huge difficulties. For a start many banks are now international organisations which could move their head offices and registrations in order to avoid any unwelcome new regulations. The Labour Party also should consider whether it is advisable to undermine the value of the banks which are majority owned by the UK state.
There was one clear pledge from Miliband which was to repeal the NHS Reform Bill. He did not say whether he simply wanted to turn the clock back or whether he has a vision of a new structure and way of doing things. After criticising a “top down” reform he proposes yet another if Labour were to win the next election.
So Miliband’s speech consisted of attacks on “millionaires”, Etonians, bankers and anyone who doesn’t share his view of the world. Not very “one nation”! There was no reaching out to the kind of aspirant voters which Labour needs to win in the south of England and no explanation of how a Labour government would reconcile its opposition to every Coalition “cut” and its desire to spend more of our money on almost everything else. The insidious message underneath the rhetoric was one of class war and the politics of envy. Already under the scrutiny of interviews today Miliband and his colleagues have been unable to explain what the rhetoric means in practice. On the Today programme this morning even the usually mild mannered Evan Davies was moved to audible derision at Miliband’s attempts to avoid answering any question of substance!
In summary it was an effective performance but more reminiscent of Neil Kinnock than Tony Blair. It reminded me of one of the fashionable manufactured pop bands, better than expected, superficially attractive and crowd pleasing but unlikely to survive the test of time. Not so much One Nation as One Direction!