New Labour is dead actually it died in May, but the death certificate didn’t arrive until this week. It was delivered by new party leader Ed Milliband in his first major speech.
Speaking from the platform at the party conference in Manchester on Tuesday he praised Labour’s achievements in power, but said the party had ‘painful truths’ to learn about why it had lost the election and with it the trust of the public.
These truths included failing to regulate the banks, sabotaging civil liberties in the fight against terrorism and, most of all, taking the country to war in Iraq. Mr Milliband said ‘we were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that, a statement that didn’t meet with the unquestioning support of older brother David, who was caught by the TV cameras whispering something less than complementary to deputy leader Harriet Harman.
Mr Milliband the younger also hit out at claims that he was in the pocket of the unions, saying he would have ‘no truck with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes’, cue footage of Tony Woodley looking less than delighted. Ed Milliband, went the implied message, isn’t ‘their’ man, he isn’t anybody’s man apart from his own.
He also joked about the ‘Red Ed’ tag attached to him over the weekend by the right wing media, calling for cheap jibes to be replaced by a ‘grown up debate’ on political issues. Labour on his watch, he said would have ‘different attitudes, different ideas, different ways of doing politics.’ It would be diametrically opposed to the ‘miserable, pessimistic view of what we can do’ to combat the deficit being propagated by the Coalition. Labour were, he said, ‘the optimists and together we will change Britain.’
The delivery was a million miles away from the showmanship used by Tony Blair in years gone by, or his surprising heir Nick Clegg only last week come to that. At times it tipped over into the sort of earnestness you might expect from the captain of a sixth form debating society, but it took courage to admit that Iraq was a mistake and he showed a touch of humour that was a welcome change from the neurotic gloom of the Brown years.
It would, perhaps, be unkind to be too critical of what was a rather underpowered keynote speech, great political speeches, unlike say great pop songs aren’t written on the hoof. Ed Milliband had just seventy two hours in which to prepare for his big moment and it showed.
That said he did strike the right note by saying that Labour has to learn hard lessons and find a new direction if the party ever hopes to return to power. The question is what should that direction be?
It would be dangerously comforting for Ed Milliband to listen too closely to the siren voices telling him that what the party needs is more of the same, a newer New Labour if you like. The spin and cynicism of the Blair/Brown years has proved itself to be anathema to party members and public alike.
There is little call for Labour to return to the inward looking squabbles over arcane points of dogma that were a feature of their failure to engage in discourse with the wider voting public during the 1980’s. Ed can though afford to be redder than he thinks, at least he can if he can persuade the voters that Labour is committed to fairness and has a viable alternative to cutting services to the bone.
As first conferences in opposition go fortune has looked more kindly on the Labour Party than it might have done. It was certainly an improvement on last year’s awful train wreck which saw the Sun abandon its support for the party.
Despite the embarrassment of having the former Foreign Secretary David Milliband bow out of front line politics, for now at least, only hours after he made his first big speech having a new leader in place should give Labour a much needed fillip in the polls and, maybe, a renewed sense of purpose. How long either will last once the frivolity of the conference season is over and the hard work of being in opposition starts in earnest is anyone’s guess.