There was an interesting line in Ed Miliband’s speech to Saturday’s Progress conference. Analysing the reason for Labour’s defeat in the May general election, he said:
Our message, too weighted to fear over hope, stopped the Tories getting a majority. But it was never enough for Labour to win. Because we did not own the future.
I suspect that, when Labour’s leader finally hands over to his successor, that may well prove to be his own epitaph.
Miliband is a scared man in charge of a scared party. His latest attempt to set out his political vision, easily the weakest speech he’s delivered since he took over from Gordon Brown, cruelly highlighted that fact. The caveats, juxtapositions and abstractions, which have in the past been scattered through his addresses, became so numerous that they created a textual landfill.
Some people Ed spoke to didn’t want to listen to Labour. But some did. People liked what they were getting from Labour. But they wanted more from Labour. “Friends,” said Ed, “let’s avoid the old Labour disease of setting out a false choice. That we must either conclude that the elections were a triumph or a disaster.”
OK, Ed, we won’t. Instead we’ll succumb to that other Labour disease of not making a choice at all.
Contradiction was piled upon contradiction. The need for us to be “asking less of the state” was followed by a call for the state to have a dabble in Cadbury’s, Man United and the Dog and Duck. Labour needed to “raise our horizons”, yet the Tories were “Maoist” in their drive for change. It was a myth that Britain was a “Conservative” country, but what people yearned for most was “for the institutions and relationships we cherish most to be respected and protected”.
One passage was so lacking in self-awareness, I thought it must have been inserted as a joke: “Where are the Tories on the big questions people are asking? Nowhere.”
But above all his speech was dominated by one thing. Fear.
An assemblage of ciphers
Miliband knows what he should be doing. Once you got the speech home, poured lemon juice over it, held it up to a candle and broke out your book of centre-left ciphers, you could just make it out. The nod to “the middle-income people in the south of England and elsewhere who don’t consider themselves rich even though they may be higher-rate taxpayers”. The pronounced wink in the direction of “Blue Labour”. The absence of references to the “progressive majority”.
But while Miliband knows where he needs to be going, he just doesn’t have the confidence to let his party or the country in on the secret. The nods and winks and silences are manifestations of that insecurity: political nervous tics.
Most revealing of all was his section on David Cameron. “There is a second strategy – a Cameron-style detoxification,” Miliband said. “I hear the advice to follow this path: find the equivalent of hug a hoodie. Or even a huskie. And that will do it.” This would, he said, be “superficial”, simply “an exercise in dealing with the negatives”.
When Cameron talked about embracing young offenders rather than simply punishing them, it was anything but superficial. The world and the right-wing press went nuts. It was a dramatic statement of how Cameron was trying to rebrand his party, on an issue that he knew would generate a backlash within the Conservatives’ own ranks.
Ultimately the signals proved false. Cameron did not have the strength to see the detoxification through. And it was that which cost him the election. His inability to persevere, not his decision to try.
Yet Cameron displayed more political courage with one speech and half a dozen huskies than Miliband has displayed in the entire time he has been Labour leader.
Safe and unsound
Where has Miliband challenged his party? How has Miliband attempted to redefine his party? When did Miliband even attempt to define himself?
Certainly not on Saturday. In fact, he’s done it once. Last Wednesday, when he decided to risk the wrath of the liberal intelligensia and called for the sacking of Kenneth Clarke. Remember that? Clarke’s sins were so grievous he had to be gone by the end of the day. Nothing less than the safety of the public was at stake.
What did the leader have to say about that outrage in Saturday’s speech? Nothing. A deathly silence. His Guardian article of the same day didn’t contain a single reference, either.
Miliband is starting to resemble Neil Kinnock in the years before his attack on Militant. He can see the route he needs to follow. He knows the future and that of his party depend on it. But he is trapped by doubts about whom he can convince to follow him. Ultimately, by doubts about himself.
“It will never be enough for us to simply take the traditional paths of oppositions,” he said. People waited expectantly to be shown the alternative path they should pursue. And they waited.