How Blue Labour shaped Miliband's speech

The three reasons why Miliband's speech could have been considered "Blue Labour".

There are three reasons why Ed Miliband's speech could have been considered "Blue Labour", leaving aside the little noticed silver blue rose that dominated the backdrop of the conference hall.

The first was a readiness to embrace conflict. New Labour presented a harmonious view of Britain; embracing the market would bring benefits for everyone. Now Ed Milband is acknowledging conflicts of interest and wants to position himself as someone who can take them on. This is most obvious when it comes to talking about "predators" in the corporate sector. But this is part of a wider narrative that speaks out against dominant interests, be they large financial giants, energy companies, state bureaucracies or the media industry and Rupert Murdoch. The frame is the small interest of the ordinary person verses the large "vested interests" that shut them out. Whether Ed Miliband can speak with credibility on these issues when he is often seen as an "insider" remains to be seen.

The second influence is a newly emerging moral tone. Ed Miliband wants to talk about morality when he allocates housing in a world of scarce resources. He wants to talk about responsibility. Controversially, he also wants to talk about benefit cheats, which make up a tiny proportion of the country's fraud, but agitate people's sense of fairness. Although some of the leader's policies were explicitly Blue Labour - state contracts going to firms that give apprenticeships, workers representation on remuneration boards - its influence was more cultural. Ed Miliband has said that he thinks New Labour focused too much on the "fabric" of society but not enough on the "ethic". As he acknowledged when I interviewed him for my book over the summer:

I think that actually (it's) ahead of its time in a way Blue Labour was saying to us look you have to think about the values that your society operates under, it's not just always about you know how can you get a bit more money for the health service, or getting more money into education, it's also about something bigger and because it's harder to define, I think it really matters, and this important point which... that the institutions we have and the way they are run speak to a set of values.

The third influence is on Ed Miliband's personal presentation. There is a desire to tell his story, and to put some emotion in to it. He explicitly referenced the important influence of the holocaust in his upbringing. He continues to make self-deprecating jokes, even if they make us feel a little uncomfortable. Blue Labour proponent Maurice Glasman said recently Ed Miliband had an "angry, insurgent side to him". If that didn't shine through in his speech, it came through more strongly in his interview for Radio 4 the day after. He will never be John Prescott, but he's consciously moving in that direction, and trying to find strength in his personal, distinct leadership. "I am my own man" as he told the conference hall.

It would be wrong to over simplify or exaggerate the importance of Blue Labour. There are many other influences at play, and some really big chunks of Blue Labour were missing from the leader's speech. The tone felt too optimistic to be truly blue, which delivers a strong critique of the concept of progress and the jargon of "going forward". The speech also had relatively little to say about family, friendships and neighbourhoods - a Blue Labour speech would have strengthened the rhetoric around co-operatives and mutuals and sounded - perhaps controversially - a little more Big Society. But a consistent narrative is emerging now and it's an interesting one. The speech was criticised for being confused, but there are strong themes there. Next time Ed Miliband just needs to cut the length by a third, and spell them out.

Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour's Soul, to be published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99 on 13 October. Advance signed copies available now exclusively at www.tangledupinblue.co.uk

Rowenna Davis is Labour PPC for Southampton Itchen and a councillor for Peckham

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.