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.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

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Tom Watson rouses Labour's conference as he comes out fighting

The party's deputy leader exhilarated delegates with his paean to the Blair and Brown years. 

Tom Watson is down but not out. After Jeremy Corbyn's second landslide victory, and weeks of threats against his position, Labour's deputy leader could have played it safe. Instead, he came out fighting. 

With Corbyn seated directly behind him, he declared: "I don't know why we've been focusing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years. But trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand. We won't win elections like that! And we need to win elections!" As Watson won a standing ovation from the hall and the platform, the Labour leader remained motionless. When a heckler interjected, Watson riposted: "Jeremy, I don't think she got the unity memo." Labour delegates, many of whom hail from the pre-Corbyn era, lapped it up.

Though he warned against another challenge to the leader ("we can't afford to keep doing this"), he offered a starkly different account of the party's past and its future. He reaffirmed Labour's commitment to Nato ("a socialist construct"), with Corbyn left isolated as the platform applauded. The only reference to the leader came when Watson recalled his recent PMQs victory over grammar schools. There were dissenting voices (Watson was heckled as he praised Sadiq Khan for winning an election: "Just like Jeremy Corbyn!"). But one would never have guessed that this was the party which had just re-elected Corbyn. 

There was much more to Watson's speech than this: a fine comic riff on "Saturday's result" (Ed Balls on Strictly), a spirited attack on Theresa May's "ducking and diving; humming and hahing" and a cerebral account of the automation revolution. But it was his paean to Labour history that roused the conference as no other speaker has. 

The party's deputy channelled the spirit of both Hugh Gaitskell ("fight, and fight, and fight again to save the party we love") and his mentor Gordon Brown (emulating his trademark rollcall of New Labour achivements). With his voice cracking, Watson recalled when "from the sunny uplands of increasing prosperity social democratic government started to feel normal to the people of Britain". For Labour, a party that has never been further from power in recent decades, that truly was another age. But for a brief moment, Watson's tubthumper allowed Corbyn's vanquished opponents to relive it. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.