Ed Miliband's speech: A manifesto for Milibandism

The Labour leader chose to tackle questions of his leadership credentials head-on.

The leader has spoken - at considerable length and without notes, which remains an impressive technical feat. But the important function of Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour party this year was not to prove that he can orate effectively from memory (he did that last year) but to persuade people that he has an agenda for government.

The most common criticisms of the Miliband project from both inside and outside his party have been: (1) the lack of a compelling story about why Britain will need a Labour government in 2015 (2) a failure to win arguments over the economy and (3) doubts about whether Ed himself can be an effective advocate of change; does he look like a leader – and where would he lead?

Miliband tried to address each of those problems systematically. His approach was to tackle the leadership question head-on, setting out an account of the qualifications to be a good Prime Minister that better match his message and record than David Cameron’s. He stressed empathy (“walking in other people’s shoes”) unity and, one of the most memorable lines, standing up to the strong instead of standing up to the weak.

Miliband knows that people think the Tory leader looks more plausibly Prime Ministerial – incumbents generally do by virtue of, well, living in 10 Downing Street and the rest of it. He also knows the Tories will attack him personally and aggressively over the next few months on the basis that his perceived weakness is a drag on Labour’s poll ratings.

So the strategy, it seems, is to query the basis on which Cameron’s supposed strength stands. The Tory leader can be presented as tough only when the recipients of toughness are the weak and the vulnerable. His alleged capacity to lead is undermined by the charge that, on crucial moral choices, he sides with the wrong people: Rupert Murdoch; the tobacco lobby; millionaires.

That leads to the next stage of Miliband’s argument, which is that a Tory leader with the wrong values is presiding over the wrong kind of economy. This has been the theme of the conference, or rather the ambition has been to make it the theme. Other news and unwelcome blasts from the New Labour past have continually obstructed the message. The point Labour wants to get across is that the Tories’ claim to have rescued the economy is bogus and that the recovery will entrench unfairness and inequality. Miliband is working on the assumption that the pressures households face from a rising cost of living will make Cameron and George Osborne’s boasts of national salvation look arrogant and complacent. But Miliband went further – he argued that the inequality and injustice were a deliberate function of the Conservative economic strategy, not just unfortunate side-effects. He justified that claim on the grounds that Cameron’s “global race” is really a race to the bottom, depressing wages and scrapping employment rights to turn Britain into a brutal neo-Victorian sweatshop.

Having established that account of why the Tories are supposed to have forfeited their right to lead the country, Miliband set out some of the ideas he hopes will prove that Labour would do it better: lower bills, more homes, apprenticeships, a better NHS, some substantial measures aimed at rebutting the claim Labour has no big ideas, baked in with motherhood and apple pie. 

It was notable that Miliband mentioned none of his shadow cabinet colleagues and referred more to himself than to his party. There seems little doubt that this speech was an attempt at personal brand rehabilitation. He knows there is a problem with perceptions of his capabilities as a leader. Some people in the party think he would be better off promoting the broader and much stronger Labour brand, campaigning as the captain of a team or even chairman of the board. He has chosen very clearly not to do that. Instead, he wants to defy conventional expectations of what a Prime Ministerial figure looks like and wrest back from the Tories some control of what defines “strong leadership.” In a memorable passage in the speech he said he expected the Tories to make the general election campaign personal and invited Cameron to “be my guest”. The line, I’m told by someone who worked with Miliband on the speech, was one that the Labour leader had improvised in rehearsal. It was deemed more civil and understated than the brash Americanism “bring it on!”

These are minute details but the point is an important one. The things that have made Labour delegates at this conference most despondent are the fear that they are losing on the economy, that they are constantly fighting battles on Tory terms and that Ed simply doesn’t look the part, no matter how hard he tries. This speech was a very direct attempt to neutralise those anxieties – to set a new framework for how the economy and leadership are defined; to make it clear that Labour is being refashioned not just as "One Nation Labour" but as Miliband's Labour. It was a well-structured argument and he delivered it pretty well. The audience was enthused; Miliband’s exhausted-looking aides seem happy and relieved.

So mission accomplished? Well, probably yes, for today. The rhetoric was right – but so it was last year too. The challenge, as many Labour people have been saying all week, is now whether there is a strategy for pushing these new arguments – erecting this new framework for debate – outside the conference centre. Miliband has set out clearly how he wants his project to be defined and it is notably more coherent today than it was yesterday, which is a start. It will only be a successful speech if it remains just as coherent tomorrow and the day after that and in the weeks and months to come.

Ed Miliband waves as he stands with his wife Justine after giving his keynote speech at the annual Labour party conference. Image: Getty

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

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Misogynoir: How social media abuse exposes longstanding prejudices against black women

After decades as an MP, Diane Abbott finally spoke out about the racist and sexist abuse she faces. But she's not alone. 

“Which STD will end your miserable life?” “This is why monkeys don’t belong here.” “I hope you get lynched”. These are just some of the many messages Seyi Akiwowo, a Labour councillor in Newham, told me she has been sent over the past three weeks. Akiwowo has received reams of violent and racist abuse after a video of her suggesting former empires pay reparations to countries they once colonised (and whose resources they still continue to plunder) went viral. She doesn’t expect everyone to agree with her, she said, but people seem to think they’re entitled to hurl abuse at her because she’s a black woman.

The particular intensity of misogyny directed at black women is so commonplace that it was given a name by academic Moya Bailey: misogynoir. This was highlighted recently when Diane Abbott, the country’s first and most-well known black woman MP and current shadow Home secretary, spoke out about the violent messages she’s received and continues to receive. The messages are so serious that Abbott’s staff often fear for her safety. There is an implicit point in abuse like this: women of colour, in particular black women, should know their place. If they dare to share their opinions, they’ll be attacked for it.

There is no shortage of evidence to show women of colour are sent racist and sexist messages for simply having an opinion or being in the public eye, but there is a dearth of meaningful responses. “I don’t see social media companies or government leaders doing enough to rectify the issue,” said Akiwowo, who has reported some of the abuse she’s received. Chi Onwurah, shadow minister for Business, Innovation and Skills, agreed. “The advice from social media experts is not to feed the trolls, but that vacates the public space for them," she said. But ignoring abuse is a non-solution. Although Onwurah notes the police and media giants are beginning to take this abuse seriously, not enough is being done.

Akiwowo has conversations with young women of colour who become less sure they want to go into politics after seeing the way people like Abbott have been treated. It’s an unsurprising reaction. Kate Osamor, shadow secretary of state for International Development, argued no one should have to deal with the kind of vitriol Abbott does. It’s well documented that the ease and anonymity of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook have changed the nature of communication – and for politicians, this means more abuse, at a faster pace and at all hours of the day. Social media, Onwurah said, has given abuse a “new lease of life”. There needs to be a concerted effort to stop people from using these platforms to spout their odious views.

But there is another layer to understanding misogyny and racism in public life. The rapid and anonymous, yet public, nature of social media has shone a light on what women of colour already know to be a reality. Dawn Butler MP, who has previously described racism as the House of Commons’ “dirty little secret”, told me “of course” she has experienced racism and sexism in Parliament: “What surprises me is when other people are surprised”. Perhaps that’s because there’s an unwillingness to realise or really grapple the pervasiveness of misogynoir.

“Sometimes it takes a lot of effort to get someone to understand the discriminatory nature of peoples’ actions,” Butler explained. “That itself is demoralising and exhausting.” After 30 years of racist and sexist treatment, it was only when Abbott highlighted the visceral abuse she experiences that politicians and commentators were willing to speak out in her support. Even then, there seemed to be little recognition of how deep this ran. In recent years, the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been ridiculed for having a relationship with her in the 70s, as if a black woman’s sexuality is both intriguing and laughable; people regularly imply she’s incompetent, despite having been in Parliament for three decades and at the last general election increasing her majority by a staggering amount; she has even been derided by her own colleagues. Those Labour MPs who began the hashtag #PrayforDiane when she was off work because of illness spoke to a form of bullying that wouldn’t be acceptable in most workplaces.

These supposedly less obvious forms of racism and sexism are largely downplayed or seen as unrelated to discrimination. They might be understood through what influential scholar Stuart Hall called the “grammar of race”. Different from overtly racist comments, Hall says there’s a form of racism that’s “inferential”; naturalised representations of people - whether factual or fictional - have “racist premises and propositions inscribed in them as a set of unquestioned assumptions”. Alongside the racist insults hurled at black women politicians like Abbott, there’s a set of racialised tropes that rely on sexualisation or derision to undermine these women.

The streams of abuse on social media aren’t the only barrier people of colour – and women in particular – face when they think about getting into politics. “I don’t think there’s a shortage of people in the black community who put themselves forward to stand for office, you only have to look at when positions come up the list of people that go for the position,” Claudia Webbe, a councillor and member of Labour's ruling body the National Executive Committee told me. As one of the few black women to hold such a position in the history of the Labour party, she knows from her extensive career how the system works. “I think there is both a problem of unfair selection and a problem of BME [black and minority ethnic] people sustaining the course." Conscious and unconscious racial and gender bias means politics are, like other areas of work in the UK, more difficult to get into if you’re a woman of colour.

“The way white women respond to the way black women are treated is integral,” Osamor says, “They are part of the solution”. White women also face venomous and low-lying forms of sexism that are often overlooked, but at times the solidarity given to them is conditional for women of colour. In a leaked letter to The Guardian, Abbott’s staff criticised the police for not acting on death threats, while similar messages sent to Anna Soubry MP resulted in arrest. When the mainstream left talks about women, it usually means white women. This implicitly turns the experiences of women of colour into an afterthought.

The systematic discrimination against women of colour, and its erasure or addendum-like quality, stems from the colonial racial order. In the days of the British empire, white women were ranked as superior to colonised Asian and African women who were at different times seen as overly sexualised or unfeminine. Black women were at the bottom of this hierarchy. Women of colour were essentially discounted as real women. Recognising this does not equate to pitting white women and women of colour against each other. It is simply a case of recognising the fact that there is a distinct issue of racial abuse.

The online abuse women of colour, and black women specifically, is an issue that needs to be highlighted and dealt with. But there are other more insidious ways that racism and sexism manifest themselves in everyday political life, which should not be overlooked. “Thirty years ago I entered parliament to try and be the change I wanted to see,” Abbott wrote. “Despite the personal attacks and the online abuse, that struggle continues.” That struggle must be a collective one.

Maya Goodfellow researches race and racism in Britain. She is a staff writer at LabourList.