Miliband's ambition is not yet matched by policy

He pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy but struggled to identify solutions.

Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference was the most ambitious delivered by a party leader for a generation. Last year he called time on New Labour but this year he called time on the entire neoliberal settlement that has governed the UK since the 1980s."It's all got to change," he cried, reasserting his ambition to do for the left what Thatcher did for the right. Just as she shifted the centre ground of British politics to the right, so he now hopes to pull it leftwards.

He turned his fire on Rupert Murdoch, Fred Goodwin (finally issuing a Labour apology for that knighthood), Southern Cross ("stripping assets for a quick buck") and the energy monopolies, vowing to break up "rigged markets" and, in his favoured phrase, take on "vested interests". No longer would Labour treat all businesses as equally worthy, he said, drawing a sharp distinction between "the producers" and "the predators". "For years as a country we have been neutral in that battle. They've been taxed the same. Regulated the same. Treated the same.Celebrated the same," he told the hall. "They won't be by me."

But while Miliband pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy he struggled to identify solutions. This was a remarkably policy-light speech, with the most memorable policy - a £6,000 cap on tuition fees - one that even he accepts is imperfect. He insisted that "it wouldn't be responsible to make promises I can't keep." But his critics will contend that Miliband still hasn't explained what the point of Labour is when there's no money to spend.

With this in mind, Miliband launched his first sustained attempt to convince voters that they could trust his party with their taxes. He promised that the next Labour government would "only spend what it can afford" and, echoing Ed Balls, conceded that he would not able to reverse many of the coalition's cuts. But he rightly refused to apologise for Labour's alleged "profligacy" and avoided legitimising the myth that overspending, rather than the recession, was to blame for the UK's mammoth deficit.

Whatever the outcome of the next election (and another hung parliament remains a distinct possibility), we can now say with some certainty that Miliband will never form a coalition with Nick Clegg. After Clegg lambasted him as one of Gordon Brown's "backroom boys", Miliband hit back, branding Clegg a "Tory" and mocking him for his broken tuition fees pledge.

But while his attacks on Clegg felt tired and predictable, his speech came to life when he directed his ire at David Cameron. In the most memorable passage of his address, he denounced Cameron's plan "to cut the 50p tax rate for people earning over £3,000 a week" and cried: "How dare they say we're all in it together." It was reminiscent of Cameron's own attack on Labour in 2009 ("how dare Labour lecture the Tories about poverty") and proved that Miliband is at his most effective when he is at his most passionate. Displaying his intellectual heft, Miliband channelled JK Galbraith and denounced the Prime Minister's belief that "you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer."

This was a serious, intellectually coherent and occasionally inspiring speech. But while Miliband has a departure point (neoliberalism) and a destination (social democracy), the route remains unclear. In time, he must identify and then articulate the policies needed to fulfil his tremendous ambition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Theresa May gambles that the EU will blink first

In her Brexit speech, the Prime Minister raised the stakes by declaring that "no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain". 

It was at Lancaster House in 1988 that Margaret Thatcher delivered a speech heralding British membership of the single market. Twenty eight years later, at the same venue, Theresa May confirmed the UK’s retreat.

As had been clear ever since her Brexit speech in October, May recognises that her primary objective of controlling immigration is incompatible with continued membership. Inside the single market, she noted, the UK would still have to accept free movement and the rulings of the European Court of Justice (ECJ). “It would to all intents and purposes mean not leaving the EU at all,” May surmised.

The Prime Minister also confirmed, as anticipated, that the UK would no longer remain a full member of the Customs Union. “We want to get out into the wider world, to trade and do business all around the globe,” May declared.

But she also recognises that a substantial proportion of this will continue to be with Europe (the destination for half of current UK exports). Her ambition, she declared, was “a new, comprehensive, bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement”. May added that she wanted either “a completely new customs agreement” or associate membership of the Customs Union.

Though the Prime Minister has long ruled out free movement and the acceptance of ECJ jurisdiction, she has not pledged to end budget contributions. But in her speech she diminished this potential concession, warning that the days when the UK provided “vast” amounts were over.

Having signalled what she wanted to take from the EU, what did May have to give? She struck a notably more conciliatory tone, emphasising that it was “overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed”. The day after Donald Trump gleefully predicted the institution’s demise, her words were in marked contrast to those of the president-elect.

In an age of Isis and Russian revanchism, May also emphasised the UK’s “unique intelligence capabilities” which would help to keep “people in Europe safe from terrorism”. She added: “At a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries including Estonia, Poland and Romania, will continue to do their duty. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.”

The EU’s defining political objective is to ensure that others do not follow the UK out of the club. The rise of nationalists such as Marine Le Pen, Alternative für Deutschland and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom) has made Europe less, rather than more, amenable to British demands. In this hazardous climate, the UK cannot be seen to enjoy a cost-free Brexit.

May’s wager is that the price will not be excessive. She warned that a “punitive deal that punishes Britain” would be “an act of calamitous self-harm”. But as Greece can testify, economic self-interest does not always trump politics.

Unlike David Cameron, however, who merely stated that he “ruled nothing out” during his EU renegotiation, May signalled that she was prepared to walk away. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain,” she declared. Such an outcome would prove economically calamitous for the UK, forcing it to accept punitively high tariffs. But in this face-off, May’s gamble is that Brussels will blink first.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.