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Miliband must name this new, insecure era

New analysis suggests British society is prepared for a substantial shift in political orientation.

The Institute for Public Policy Research has published a very interesting pamphlet ahead of Labour party conference on the changing face of the British electorate.

It is a detailed analysis of what the author, Graeme Cooke, calls the "new political sociology" (it's a think tank pamphlet, so allowed to wear -ologies and -isms with pride). The kernel of the argument is that New Labour achieved political success and dominated the national debate by owning the optimistic national mood of the late '90s and early '00s. Cooke calls it the "modernisation era" and excavates some of the sociological and demographic changes that lay behind it: increased participation in higher education; changes in family structures; accelerated permissiveness in personal morality etc. (There were lots more students and they took lots of drugs -- my shorthand, not Cooke's, and clearly there's a lot more to it than that.)

It is certainly true that in terms of the lexicon, this was a time when "modernisation" and "reform" became the default imperatives and highest moral accolades that could be stamped on any political project. (No wonder conservatism was in the wilderness.) Cooke's contention is that this era ended with the financial crisis and that the centre-left (i.e. Labour) has to grasp what the equivalent sociological and demographic forces are that will shape the new era -- and harness them for a political project.

A lot of this chimes with Ed Miliband's focus on the "quiet crisis" unfolding in British households squeezed and disoriented by stagnant incomes and inflation, leading to a steady decline in living standards. Cooke's analysis also fits fairly snugly with some of the arguments made by Stewart Wood, an important strategic thinker in Miliband's shadow cabinet, in a short essay for the latest edition of the magazine. Lord Wood argues that the financial crisis signals the obsolescence of the neoliberal economic model and that the government's difficulties in responding to the crisis reflect Tory and Lib Dem inability to conceive of an alternative way of structuring capitalism. Ed's plan is to define that new structure and sell it to the country. "Building an alternative to the neoliberal settlement should be the frame for the debate within our movement" is how Lord Wood puts it. "Ripping up the rule book" is Miliband's distilled version.

The IPPR analysis offers some grounds for thinking that British society is in some ways prepared for quite a substantial shift in political orientation -- since I'm in so deep with the think tank wonkishness I'll go all the way and call it a paradigmatic shift.

In my column this week, I talked about the way coalition, by solving the technical problem of a hung parliament, has obscured the underlying issue of hung politics. None of the main Westminster parties has yet found a compelling language for addressing people's concerns about the way society and the economy seem to be drifting into a long, scary crisis. The coalition's message of "painful but necessary" austerity will wear very thin as it becomes clear how unevenly and unfairly the pain has been allocated.

Miliband needs to give a name to this new, insecure era just as he put the notion of the "squeezed middle" into general use. Then he has to portray a happier destination for the country -- a route out of the crisis -- and convince people that he has the strength and imagination to lead the country there (while hoping they forget that his party was in government when we plunged headlong into the crisis in the first place). In case that isn't enough, Labour conference delegates and the media are kind of expecting him to do this all in one speech next week. No pressure then, Ed.