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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The NS leader: Cold Britannia

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. 

Twenty years after the election of New Labour, for the left, it seems, things can only get worse. The polls suggest a series of grim election defeats across Britain: Labour is 10 points behind the Conservatives even in Wales, putting Theresa May’s party on course to win a majority of seats there for the first time in a century. Meanwhile, in Scotland, the psephologist John Curtice expects the resurgent Tories, under the “centrist” leadership of Ruth Davidson, to gain seats while Labour struggles to cling on to its single MP.

Where did it all go wrong? In this week’s cover essay, beginning on page 26, John Harris traces the roots of Labour’s present troubles back to the scene of one of its greatest triumphs, on 1 May 1997, when it returned 418 MPs to the Commons and ended 18 years of Conservative rule. “Most pop-culture waves turn out to have been the advance party for a new mutation of capitalism, and so it proved with this one,” Mr Harris, one of the contributors to our New Times series, writes. “If Cool Britannia boiled down to anything, it was the birth of a London that by the early Noughties was becoming stupidly expensive and far too full of itself.”

Jump forward two decades and London is indeed now far too dominant in the British economy, sucking in a disproportionate number of graduates and immigrants and then expecting them to pay £4 for a milky coffee and £636,777 for an average house. Tackling the resentment caused by London’s dominance must be an urgent project for the Labour Party. It is one that Mr Corbyn and his key allies, John McDonnell, Emily Thornberry and Diane Abbott, are not well placed to do (all four are ultra-liberals who represent
London constituencies).

Labour must also find a happy relationship with patriotism, which lies beneath many of the other gripes made against Mr Corbyn: his discomfort with the institutions of the British state, his peacenik tendencies, his dislike of Nato and military alliances, his natural inclination towards transnational or foreign liberation movements, rather than seeking to evolve a popular national politics.

New Labour certainly knew how to wave the flag, even if the results made many on the left uncomfortable: on page 33, we republish our Leader from 2 May 1997, which complained about the “bulldog imagery” of Labour’s election campaign. Yet those heady weeks that followed Labour’s landslide victory were a time of optimism and renewal, when it was possible for people on the left to feel proud of their country and to celebrate its achievements, rather than just apologise for its mistakes. Today, Labour has become too reliant on misty invocations of the NHS to demonstrate that it likes or even understands the country it seeks to govern. A new patriotism, distinct from nationalism, is vital to any Labour revival.

That Tony Blair and his government have many detractors hardly needs to be said. The mistakes were grave: the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, a lax attitude to regulating the financial sector, a too-eager embrace of free-market globalisation, and the failure to impose transitional controls on immigration when eastern European states joined the EU. All contributed to the anger and disillusionment that led to the election as Labour leader of first the hapless Ed Miliband and then Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time rebel backbencher.

However, 20 years after the victory of the New Labour government, we should also acknowledge its successes, not least the minimum wage, education reform, Sure Start, a huge fall in pensioner poverty and investment in public services. Things did get better. They can do so again.

The far right halted

For once, the polls were correct. On 23 April, the centrist Emmanuel Macron triumphed in the first round of the French election with 24 per cent of the vote. The Front National’s Marine Le Pen came second with 21.3 per cent in an election in which the two main parties were routed. The two candidates will now face off on 7 May, and with the mainstream candidates of both left and right falling in behind Mr Macron, he will surely be France’s next president.

“There’s a clear distinction to be made between a political adversary and an enemy of the republic,” said Benoît Hamon, the candidate of the governing Parti Socialiste, who had strongly criticised Mr Macron during the campaign. “This is deadly serious now.” He is correct. Mr Macron may be a centrist rather than of the left but he is a democratic politician. Ms Le Pen is a borderline fascist and a victory for her would herald a dark future not just for France but for all of Europe. It is to Donald Trump’s deep shame that he appeared to endorse her on the eve of the vote.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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