One of Ed Miliband’s closest advisors recently told me I’d start seeing the words “Real Change” behind the Labour leader when he was speaking in public. It was true. Since that conversation I’ve started spotting the two-word slogan that is meant to encapsulate the opposition leader’s offer to the nation. “Reconfiguring capitalism with a new ethos of responsibility in recognition of the obsolescence of the neo-liberal paradigm” wouldn’t fit on the banner.
Miliband’s contention (re-iterated in an interview with the Independent today ) is that an ideological era – characterised by the cult of market supremacy and the accompanying denigration of government intervention – is drawing to a close. The next election, Miliband has told his MPs, will signal a choice for the country as significant as the installation of Margaret Thatcher as Prime Minister in 1979. In this analysis, Miliband is the far-sighted herald of drastic change, the Tories are hapless custodians of a failed status quo.
Needless to say there are sceptics, including a few big hitters in the shadow cabinet. They worry that Miliband’s diagnosis of the shifting political terrain is really an elaborate intellectualisation of a familiar soft left conviction (delusion, some would say) that Britain is just itching to vote for social democracy but has somehow been prevented from doing so for a generation by Murdoch media and/or denied the opportunity because Labour was somehow captured by crypto-Conservative sell-out Blairites.
Either Ed Miliband is really onto something and will surf a wave of emerging cultural and political consciousness all the way into Downing Street, or he is the new Neil Kinnock – an easy repository of anti-government votes right up until polling day when he is unceremoniously dumped.
It is in the context of that broad ideological gamble that Miliband’s trip to Paris tomorrow to visit French President Francois Hollande must be seen. At one level, there is some petty political point-scoring going on. Diplomatic protocol would suggest that the British Prime Minister should get the invitation to the Elysee Palace ahead of the lowly opposition leader. But David Cameron failed to make diplomatic overtures to Monsieur Hollande when the Socialist leader was visiting Britain to campaign for ex-pat French voters in the UK. It seems the snub is being repaid and Miliband is happy to be the agent of repayment.
But Hollande is important to Miliband in a more profound way. His election coincided with a shift in the debate over economic policy in Europe. Crudely speaking, the arrival of the first Socialist French president for a generation seemed to signal a broadening recognition that the pursuit of fiscal retrenchment without compensating government action to spur growth and create jobs was proving economically suicidal. The advocates of raw austerity were, with varying degrees of zeal, Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron – their approach was memorably satirised by Miliband as “Camerkozy economics.”
In other words, Miliband wants to be associated with a New European Order and to portray Cameron as the peddler of a decaying outmoded orthodoxy. For that to be a truly effective political device it would require people to (a) notice what happens in French politics and (b) think it in any way relevant to the UK. Both are tenuous assumptions. France had a Socialist President throughout the 1980s. Did Mitterandism touch British voters at all?
That doesn’t mean Miliband’s visit is pointless. For one thing, he really might end up as Prime Minister and so it can’t hurt to start building alliances. But also, the story of Hollande’s victory is psychologically important to the Labour leader. The French President was ridiculed as uncharismatic, soft around the edges, without definition, lacking the requisite authority. Even when he was ahead in opinion polls, pundits routinely predicted that the French would not endorse someone so un-presidential in manner … France’s Neil Kinnock. Sarkozy, they said, was the consummate media performer who should never be under-estimated.
It is not hard to see how that fable – the unglamorous social democrat tortoise and the flamboyant conservative hare – would appeal to Ed Miliband. Francois Hollande is more than a potential ally for the Labour leader; he is an electoral mascot.