Sunday, 2 October 2011

Official: Ed Milliband isn’t Tony Blair; so who is he then?

Ed Milliband is back in town, the town in question being Liverpool home to last week’s Labour Party conference, and he’s out to wage war on the ‘predatory asset stripping’ and the ‘fast buck culture’ that has caused a ‘quiet crisis’ in the UK. If politics were an old time western then Red Ed would be the hero in a white Stetson riding to the rescue of the nations ‘grafters.’

In his set piece speech to the party conference on Tuesday afternoon he hit out at the government’s austerity plans which are, he says, to blame for the ‘quiet crisis’ and at the political and economic settlement of the past thirty years for too often rewarding ‘not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values.’

People such as former care company Southern Cross and the former masters of the financial universe exemplified by the likes of ex RBS chief Sir Fred, ‘the shred’ Goodwin, to whom Gordon Brown gave first a knighthood and then rather a lot of taxpayers hard earned cash when the banking system nearly went into meltdown in 2008. These all round bad hats would be shunned in favour of companies such as Rolls Royce that actually make things rather than simply shifting money around.

He admitted that during its time in government Labour had ‘lost trust on the economy’ and pledged that under his leadership a future Labour government would ‘only spend what it can afford.’ You might think that all governments intend to do this but then tend to get blown off course and into debt by what Harold Macmillan called ‘events dear boy’, however in a world where the right wing media blames everything from the global financial crisis to it raining on the proprietor’s birthday on Labour profligacy it is a point worth making.

Ed Milliband is also in favour of a ‘new bargain’ between the government and the British public, one based on a ‘something for something’ culture where responsibility and hard work are rewarded. This would apply to those people at both ends of the economic spectrum, so no more free handouts for people on benefits and a bit more tax for the rich to pay. Not a bad idea in itself and one that resonates with the public, but it does sound a little bit ‘motherhood and apple pie.’

This wasn’t a bad speech, even though by now we know the bar set for Mr Ed isn’t all that high to start with. His delivery was as pedestrian as ever and, as his attempt to tell a joke about his recent operation to correct a deviated septum demonstrates, a second career on the stand up circuit does not beckon.

There were though several things to commend in what he said, he struck the right note between nailing the failings of New Labour and being aware of those of the more traditional wing of the party. He was also right to highlight then need for Labour to champion the building of a new type of society, one that avoids a retreat into cosy utopianism and that rejects on principle the cynical calculations of the Blair years.

The problem is that after a year in opposition Labour under Ed Milliband are still unable to articulate what that new bargain would look like when translated into reality. This is partly a result of their leader’s difficulties communicating with the lobby correspondents at Westminster let alone the wider British Public; say what you like about Saint Tony the one thing he did better than anyone else was work a room.

This inability to get over a message that should resonate powerfully with the public as the spending cuts begin to bite shows itself in the fact that when ComRes polled a thousand voters for the Independent only 24% saw Ed Milliband as a credible prime minister in waiting. That figure probably dropped even further amongst voters who heard him denying on Radio Four’s Today programme that he was ‘weird’, something floating voters in another poll conducted for Tory grandee Lord Ashcroft claimed to see him as.

This accusation in itself was rather childish, for the record all senior politicians are a little bit odd, they have to be to cope with the years of ridicule and rejection they have to go through as they climb the greasy pole. Far more damaging was the claim made by the same poll that even voters who were ‘warmly disposed’ to Labour see Ed Milliband as being ‘a blank canvas onto which they projected what were essentially hopes, or at least the benefit of the doubt.’

The real problem though is that even had Ed Milliband delivered a latter day Gettysburg Address in Liverpool this week it would have made little difference because as a means of political discourse set piece speeches made by leaders to their party conference are a busted flush. They are too carefully choreographed to make a lasting impact, it would have been more effective to have heard Ed Milliband make a shorter and more passionate speech about the three thousand BAE workers thrown on the dole this week than for him to have run through his over rehearsed paces so the massed ranks of the press could hold up score cards like this was the Olympic ice skating championships.

At the end of this year’s conference Ed Milliband is no more or less secure in his position as leader than when it started, mostly because there are no credible challengers waiting in the wings. Ed Balls would dearly love to make a grab for the crown, but made too many enemies when he was Gordon Brown’s strong arm man to have any serious backing. Yvette Cooper may make a more realistic challenge at some time in the future, but not until after the next election in all probability.

Things could be worse for the Labour Party; they have the germ of a message about change and fairness that could resonate powerfully with the electorate if only it were articulated properly. The trouble is it is hard to see how they are going to get any better with a leader who, at best, can only inspire voters to give him the ‘benefit of the doubt.’

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