Ed Miliband delivered his Leaders speech at the Labour Party Conference yesterday, laying to rest ghosts of Labour’s past and outlining the future of the New Generation. At risk of sounding like breed of transformer or perhaps new set of power rangers Ed has dubbed his era the new generation of Labour. Whilst this name does have a certain action adventure/sci-fi lilt to it, encapsulates the necessary changes ahead of Labour. Initial responses to Ed’s speech were positive at how he took on some of the big issues though cautious of its generalized tone.
Miliband emphasizes the need to ‘win back the trust of the country’ whilst they ‘denied the conservatives a majority’ they were still beaten and beaten badly, losing 5 million votes from 1997 to 2010. His highlighting of responsibility and ownership of mistakes will strike a chord with disillusioned swing voters who used their vote in the last general election to puncture the arrogance of a Labour government that had ignored its electorate.
The sense of history in the speech was powerful and helped to put to bed media-driven accusations of a leftward leap. Ed talked a great deal on returning to the old ideals that had made New Labour a success in its youth. Ed wanted Labour to be the ‘reforming, restless and radical’ force it had been before it had become the ‘new establishment’ and ‘a prisoner in its own certainties’. He desires to make Labour once again ‘a force that takes on established thinking; doesn’t succumb to it, speaks up for the majority and reshapes the centre ground of politics’.
The new leader does of course differ on many points from his predecessors but his speech evoked a balanced view of taking forward the attitudes and strengths of Labour’s past and divorcing his new generation from some of the larger skeletons in Labour’s closet. The most notable historical issue brought to the fore and denounced was the Iraq war. Ed called the Iraq war ‘wrong’ and said that Labour needed to admit this. Ed stated that the war was not the last resort available and through undertaking it the UK undermined the UN. The elder Miliband, who voted for military action, was seen to rebuke Harriet Harman for applauding saying ‘you voted for it. Why are you clapping?’
Ed himself has fueled speculation that David will retire from front-line politics today with his statement in a radio interview that we ‘haven’t heard the last’ from his brother. The deadline MP’s to put their name forward for the Shadow Cabinet is today at 5pm, at which point we will all find out what David’s next move will be. Some have said that retirement would be petulant but given how doggedly the media is pressing the sibling rivalry issue it may well be in the greater interests of the party to step aside. David was filmed throughout for reactions to his brother’s speech and newspapers have naturally leapt upon his outburst.
Disparity of opinion within the Labour camp is hardly a peculiarity of only the New Generation. Labour can always be seen as a broad camp of opinion but Ed prepared his followers for potential disagreements with the statement ‘you might not always like what I have to say… but you’ve elected me leader and lead I will’. Ed made bold claims about leadership and in a nod to his Labour predecessor, not being swayed by focus groups and the instant popularity of ‘X-factor politics’. ‘Politics has to be about leadership or it’s about nothing’ and Ed pledged to be a responsible leader of the opposition; to disagree loudly when he disagrees, but not to do so indiscriminately.
The issue on which many desired to hear Ed’s line of attack was that of the economy and his approach to the deficit. Ed called for construction of ‘the economy we need’; an economy less dependent on financial services and more equally distributive of the wealth it generates. His most clear statement upon approach was that we should not ‘make a bad situation worse by embarking on deficit reduction at a pace and in a way that endangers our recovery’. He followed by saying that Alistair Darling’s budget was a ‘starting point’ but that ‘growth is the priority’ and that we must be ‘vigilant’ not to impair it. Ed clearly outlined lofty economic aims but was foggy on the details of this ‘plan for growth’ and ‘change’.
One issue people were most eager to hear about was how a leader given a leg up into power by the Unions would respond to Union militancy. Ed faithfully promised to bite the hand that feeds in order to court a greater benefactor, the general public. Ed stated that in order to win the argument on the danger of the coalition government, and the next general election, Labour needs public backing. With this in mind Labour cannot afford to alienate the public through the backing of irresponsible strikes. Ed made clear than Unions are an essential part of a civilized and democratic nation and called for responsible businesses as well as responsible Unions. But despite supporting the need for regulation of employers and enforcement of standards, Miliband affirmed that he would not support ‘irresponsible strikes’.
Ed attempted to wrest the idea of a wholesome society out of conservative ‘Big society’ clutches with his statements about value and lifestyle that the markets cannot supply. We are huge consumers ‘that yearn for things they cannot buy; strong families, time with children, green spaces, community life, love and compassion’. Ed returned to the empowering soundbite that there is ‘more to life than the bottom line’.
Optimism was a key phrase for Ed and if you can take an optimistic view of these aims being realised there may be hope for Labour yet. Whilst they may well be the optimists in politics today, are we the optimists in the electorate? I think I’ll wait for the details before I abandon faithful cynicism.