Ed Miliband finds his voice but loses his message

Saturday’s speech mattered, but for a sense of direction you need to look further back.

Ed Miliband's speech to the Fabian Society was instructive. In terms of what was said, it was something of a textual car crash; new liberalism collided with blue socialism, which in turn was shunted into the good society and finally rear-ended the "big society". There may well be a progressive majority willing to embrace civil libertarianism, spurn the legacy of Thatcherism and shun consumerism, but it won't be found in Billingsgate Fish Market.

Since Christmas, Labour's new leader has hit his stride. The way he channelled the media agenda in the run-up to the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, zeroing in on real doorstep issues like VAT rises and bankers bonuses, was a case study in focused opposition politics. Yes, you can credit his newy formed media team. But they're Ed Miliband's hires and he's the guy standing front of house. The recent plaudits, rightly, are his.

Yet Saturday showed that while Miliband has started to find his voice, he's still struggling to identify his audience. In isolation, the appeal to disillusioned Liberal Democrats resonates. His community organising model is generating interest among activists. There are welcome signs he is preparing to reach out to Labour's lost working class.

But he has not yet managed to find a way of knitting these themes together in one coherent narrative. As an observer said, "It was as if he was reading four different speeches, and he hadn't written any of them." The result is that, in trying to speak to everyone, he risks speaking to no one.

A few weeks ago Miliband released his New Year statement. Amid the tumble of Australian wickets and outcry over the government's decision to let swine flu cut a swath through the population, it passed mostly unnoticed. But according to party sources it's that message that will provide the "template" around which he intends to base his political strategy.

"People knew it wouldn't get much coverage," said an insider, "but Ed's office wanted a reference point. They wanted something they can point to in six months' time and say, 'This is what we said the themes would be and these are the themes that are now cutting through.' "

Those themes are the economy, social mobility and the new politics. Of these, it is the economy that his team has been pushing hard over the past weeks, with tactical success. The team is also beginning to engage with the difficult strategic issues, such as the deficit and, in particular, what they see as the myth of Labour's deficit denial. "It only resonates because it rhymes. We're going to nail it," said a source.

But that clarity and focus also need to be translated into a coherent political vision. On Saturday that vision remained obscure.

On the economy, for example, Miliband's critique of New Labour appeared straightforward enough: "The first part of the way we must change is to show we can build a fair economy, with wealth creation and social justice for all at its heart." Except it was preceded by: "Our period in office was marked by notable successes: record levels of employment, a decade of continuous growth until 2008, low inflation, low interest rates and the minimum wage. What is more, we used the proceeds of growth to both rebuild public services and tackle poverty. Whereas before 1997, relative poverty had trebled and the public realm had crumbled, we comprehensively changed the direction in which our country was headed."

Is Milliband's pitch really going to be that he will save us from the regressive policy agenda that delivered record employment, a decade of growth, slashed inflation, slashed interest rates, introduced the minimum wage, rebuilt public services, tackled actual poverty, tackled relative poverty and began to rebuild the crumbling public realm?

Some supporters believe those who criticise the absence of an agenda do so because they just cannot stomach the one on offer. They point to Saturday as evidence of a clear, moderate, centre-left shift away from Blairite orthodoxy. "People know precisely where Ed's going; it's just that some of them don't like it," said one.

That may be true. But it is also true that some of his messages are being nuanced to the point of obscurity, while others are simply contradictory. If you praise "the New Labour tradition which embraced dynamic markets", your statement "It won't be enough to rely on a deregulated market economy providing the tax revenues for redistribution" is diluted. To say Labour "lost sight of people as individuals, and of the importance of communities", is meaningless. Individuals and communities are not the same, as Thatcherism graphically illustrated.

Ed Miliband has found his voice, but as a result he's trying simultaneously to say too many things to too many people.

He has his template. Now he must use it.

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Five things we've learned from Labour conference

The party won't split, Corbynite divisions are growing and MPs have accepted Brexit. 

Labour won't split anytime soon

For months, in anticipation of Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election, the media had speculated about the possibility of a Labour split. But the party’s conference confirmed that MPs have no intention of pursuing this course (as I had long written). They are tribally loyal to Labour and fear that a split would prove electorally ruinous under first-past-the-post. Many still expect Theresa May to hold an early general election and are focused on retaining their seats.

Rather than splitting, Corbyn’s opponents will increase their level of internal organisation in a manner reminiscent of the left’s Socialist Campaign Group. The “shadow shadow cabinet” will assert itself through backbench policy committees and, potentially, a new body (such as the proposed “2020 group”). Their aim is to promote an alternative direction for Labour and to produce the ideas and organisation that future success would depend on.

MPs do not dismiss the possibility of a split if their “hand is forced” through a wave of deselections or if the left achieves permanent control of the party. But they expect Labour to fight the next election as a united force.

Neither the Corbynites nor the rebels have ultimate control 

Corbyn’s second landslide victory confirmed the left’s dominance among the membership. He increased his winning margin and triumphed in every section. But beyond this, the left’s position is far more tenuous.

The addition of Scottish and Welsh representatives to the National Executive Committee handed Corbyn’s opponents control of Labour’s ruling body. Any hope of radically reshaping the party’s rule book has ended.

For weeks, Corbyn’s allies have spoken of their desire to remove general secretary Iain McNicol and deputy leader Tom Watson. But the former is now safe in his position, while the latter has been strengthened by his rapturously received speech.

Were Corbyn to eventually resign or be defeated, another left candidate (such as John McDonnell) would struggle to make the ballot. Nominations from 15 per cent of MPs are required but just six per cent are committed Corbynites (though selection contests and seat losses could aid their cause). It’s for this reason that allies of the leader are pushing for the threshold to be reduced to five per cent. Unless they succeed, the hard-left’s dominance is from assured. Were an alternative candidate, such as Clive Lewis or Angela Rayner, to succeed it would only be by offering themselves as a softer alternative.

Corbynite divisions are intensifying 

The divide between Corbyn’s supporters and opponents has recently monopolised attention. But the conference showed why divisions among the former should be interrogated.

Shadow defence secretary Clive Lewis, an early Corbyn backer, was enraged when his speech was amended to exclude a line announcing that Labour’s pro-Trident stance would not be reversed. Though Lewis opposes renewal, he regards unilateralism as an obstacle to unifying the party around a left economic programme. The longer Corbyn remains leader, the greater the tension between pragmatism and radicalism will become. Lewis may have alienated CND but he has improved his standing among MPs, some of whom hail him as a bridge between the hard and soft left.

Elsewhere, the briefing against McDonnell by Corbyn allies, who suggested he was an obstacle to recruiting frontbenchers, showed how tensions between their respective teams will continue.

Labour has accepted Brexit

Ninety four per cent of Labour MPs backed the Remain campaign during the EU referendum. But by a similar margin, they have accepted the Leave vote. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, both long-standing eurosceptics, confirmed that they would not seek to prevent Brexit.

Owen Smith called for a referendum on the eventual deal during his leadership campaign. But with some exceptions, such as Angela Eagle, most of his backers have rejected the idea. Though 48 per cent of the electorate voted Remain, MPs emphasise that only 35 per cent of constituencies did. Some still fear an SNP-style surge for Ukip if Labour seeks to overturn the outcome.

The debate has moved to Britain’s future relationship with Europe, most notably the degree of free movement. For Labour, like Theresa May, Brexit means Brexit.

Corbyn will not condemn deselections 

The Labour leader could have won credit from MPs by unambiguously condemning deselection attempts. But repeatedly invited to do so, he refused. Corbyn instead defended local parties’ rights and stated that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear (a line hardly reassuring to those who do). Angela Eagle, Stella Creasy and Peter Kyle are among the rebels targeted by activists.

Corbyn can reasonably point out that the rules remain the same as under previous leaders. MPs who lose trigger ballots of their local branches face a full and open selection. But Labour’s intensified divisions mean deselection has become a far greater threat. MPs fear that Corbyn relishes the opportunity to remake the parliamentary party in his own images.  And some of the leader’s allies hope to ease the process by reviving mandatory reselection. Unless Corbyn changes his line, the issue will spark continual conflict. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.