Speaking at his party’s national policy forum in Gillingham this weekend Ed Milliband said that it was time for Labour to ‘take back the term Big Society’ from the Conservatives and to become again the ‘people’s party.’
His comments came at the launch of a major review of party policy headed by former Cabinet Office minister Liam Byrne that in many respects mirrors David Cameron’s mostly successful attempt to ‘detoxify’ the image of the Tories. The review will cover the party’s stance of troublesome issues such as tax, immigration and welfare and will see shadow ministers leading policy discussions with party members.
Speaking to assembled delegates Mr Milliband said the party needed to be ‘reconnected to the hopes and aspirations of the people of Britain’ and had to prove that the policy review was a genuinely open minded exercise not one run by ‘a bunch of experts gathered in a room in London’ and determined to prove their own opinions correct.
He also admitted that in government Labour had ‘got some things wrong’; try almost everything wrong from 2005 onwards Ed, and that the party had been guilty of ‘losing its way.’ Most tellingly of all he admitted that they had too often seen problems in communities and thought the answer was ‘a programme or a policy,’ sometimes the policy was right; often it wasn’t and Labour was equally often too insular to notice until it was too late.
There were more admissions from shadow Welsh Secretary Peter Hain, who will chair the policy review, the party had, he said, to be ‘a changed Labour party for the next general election’, the public had grown tired of and cynical about the New Labour project and as a result the party had ‘got a hammering’ in May and needed to learn the lessons of that experience.
All this mea culpa stuff is very nice and cathartic in its way, but it needs more than well meaning navel gazing to turn around a party that doesn’t know what its for or who it represents. The policy review and the party as a whole will stand or fall on whether or not it can turn talk into action.
It will also stand or fall on what sort of figure Ed Milliband cuts as an opposition leader, perhaps the most thankless job in British politics. Every day is a struggle not to trip on one banana thrown in your path by the media or the government, so far, I’m afraid Red Ed’s report card would read ‘could do better.’
He appears awkward and earnest in public, making him a poor foil for Citizen Dave with his easy charm and has allowed the media to drag him into silly controversies about whether he plans to marry his long term partner or whether or not he has been recorded as the father on the birth certificate of his oldest child. When he comes into contact with ‘ordinary’ voters Milliband looks uncomfortable as evidenced by his bemused response to TESCO workers this week who told him they didn’t think the welfare system gave people an incentive to work.
There is also the small problem of having a shadow cabinet that seems to be pulling in two directions at once. For example shadow chancellor Alan Johnson wants to loosen the party’s ties with the unions, his leader knows only too well that he owes his position to the unions and that without their cash the party would be bankrupt.
The good news though is that despite a shaky start Ed Milliband is starting to sound like his own man at last. He cut several large donors out of the honours list and has admitted publicly that his in ‘unashamed’ about being a socialist; thank heavens for that for far too long socialism has been a naughty word in a party that would have no reason to exist without it.
Taking socialism out of mothballs and putting it at the centre of party policy might just be the saving of the Labour Party, however much their leader talks about replacing GDP with a ‘happiness index’ as a measure of national progress the spending cuts will drag the Tories and their Lib Dem accomplices to the right; that movement needs to be counterbalanced by an opposition that leans to the left, clinging to the middle ground is no longer an option.
Labour has, though, to pick the right kind of socialism, the insular, sectarian and often silly incarnation practiced by the so called ‘loony left’ is a non starter because it frightens voters because its adherents seem to rejoice in not connecting with the public mood. Ed Milliband needs to go out and talk to party members and public alike about a form of socialism that is based on the fairness deeply engrained in the British character that doesn’t hold back personal ambition only requires it to be tempered with a responsibility towards the society we all share.
It won’t be easy, the media will pillory him as being out of touch because they, as all cynics do, instinctively fear anyone with a ‘vision’; his political opponents will try to shout him down, he must ignore all this and keep on talking about what he believes is right.
If Ed Milliband really wants to make Labour the ‘people’s party’ again and to be ‘back on people’s side, back in power making the fairer, the more equal, the more just country we believe in,’ as he claimed in his speech at Gillingham he has no other choice.