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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The tale of Battersea power station shows how affordable housing is lost

Initially, the developers promised 636 affordable homes. Now, they have reduced the number to 386. 

It’s the most predictable trick in the big book of property development. A developer signs an agreement with a local council promising to provide a barely acceptable level of barely affordable housing, then slashes these commitments at the first, second and third signs of trouble. It’s happened all over the country, from Hastings to Cumbria. But it happens most often in London, and most recently of all at Battersea power station, the Thames landmark and long-time London ruin which I wrote about in my 2016 book, Up In Smoke: The Failed Dreams of Battersea Power Station. For decades, the power station was one of London’s most popular buildings but now it represents some of the most depressing aspects of the capital’s attempts at regeneration. Almost in shame, the building itself has started to disappear from view behind a curtain of ugly gold-and-glass apartments aimed squarely at the international rich. The Battersea power station development is costing around £9bn. There will be around 4,200 flats, an office for Apple and a new Tube station. But only 386 of the new flats will be considered affordable

What makes the Battersea power station development worse is the developer’s argument for why there are so few affordable homes, which runs something like this. The bottom is falling out of the luxury homes market because too many are being built, which means developers can no longer afford to build the sort of homes that people actually want. It’s yet another sign of the failure of the housing market to provide what is most needed. But it also highlights the delusion of politicians who still seem to believe that property developers are going to provide the answers to one of the most pressing problems in politics.

A Malaysian consortium acquired the power station in 2012 and initially promised to build 517 affordable units, which then rose to 636. This was pretty meagre, but with four developers having already failed to develop the site, it was enough to satisfy Wandsworth council. By the time I wrote Up In Smoke, this had been reduced back to 565 units – around 15 per cent of the total number of new flats. Now the developers want to build only 386 affordable homes – around 9 per cent of the final residential offering, which includes expensive flats bought by the likes of Sting and Bear Grylls. 

The developers say this is because of escalating costs and the technical challenges of restoring the power station – but it’s also the case that the entire Nine Elms area between Battersea and Vauxhall is experiencing a glut of similar property, which is driving down prices. They want to focus instead on paying for the new Northern Line extension that joins the power station to Kennington. The slashing of affordable housing can be done without need for a new planning application or public consultation by using a “deed of variation”. It also means Mayor Sadiq Khan can’t do much more than write to Wandsworth urging the council to reject the new scheme. There’s little chance of that. Conservative Wandsworth has been committed to a developer-led solution to the power station for three decades and in that time has perfected the art of rolling over, despite several excruciating, and occasionally hilarious, disappointments.

The Battersea power station situation also highlights the sophistry developers will use to excuse any decision. When I interviewed Rob Tincknell, the developer’s chief executive, in 2014, he boasted it was the developer’s commitment to paying for the Northern Line extension (NLE) that was allowing the already limited amount of affordable housing to be built in the first place. Without the NLE, he insisted, they would never be able to build this number of affordable units. “The important point to note is that the NLE project allows the development density in the district of Nine Elms to nearly double,” he said. “Therefore, without the NLE the density at Battersea would be about half and even if there was a higher level of affordable, say 30 per cent, it would be a percentage of a lower figure and therefore the city wouldn’t get any more affordable than they do now.”

Now the argument is reversed. Because the developer has to pay for the transport infrastructure, they can’t afford to build as much affordable housing. Smart hey?

It’s not entirely hopeless. Wandsworth may yet reject the plan, while the developers say they hope to restore the missing 250 units at the end of the build.

But I wouldn’t hold your breath.

This is a version of a blog post which originally appeared here.

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