There are three reasons why Ed Miliband’s speech could have been considered “Blue Labour”, leaving aside the little noticed silver blue rose that dominated the backdrop of the conference hall.
The first was a readiness to embrace conflict. New Labour presented a harmonious view of Britain; embracing the market would bring benefits for everyone. Now Ed Milband is acknowledging conflicts of interest and wants to position himself as someone who can take them on. This is most obvious when it comes to talking about “predators” in the corporate sector. But this is part of a wider narrative that speaks out against dominant interests, be they large financial giants, energy companies, state bureaucracies or the media industry and Rupert Murdoch. The frame is the small interest of the ordinary person verses the large “vested interests” that shut them out. Whether Ed Miliband can speak with credibility on these issues when he is often seen as an “insider” remains to be seen.
The second influence is a newly emerging moral tone. Ed Miliband wants to talk about morality when he allocates housing in a world of scarce resources. He wants to talk about responsibility. Controversially, he also wants to talk about benefit cheats, which make up a tiny proportion of the country’s fraud, but agitate people’s sense of fairness. Although some of the leader’s policies were explicitly Blue Labour – state contracts going to firms that give apprenticeships, workers representation on remuneration boards – its influence was more cultural. Ed Miliband has said that he thinks New Labour focused too much on the “fabric” of society but not enough on the “ethic”. As he acknowledged when I interviewed him for my book over the summer:
I think that actually (it’s) ahead of its time in a way Blue Labour was saying to us look you have to think about the values that your society operates under, it’s not just always about you know how can you get a bit more money for the health service, or getting more money into education, it’s also about something bigger and because it’s harder to define, I think it really matters, and this important point which… that the institutions we have and the way they are run speak to a set of values.
The third influence is on Ed Miliband’s personal presentation. There is a desire to tell his story, and to put some emotion in to it. He explicitly referenced the important influence of the holocaust in his upbringing. He continues to make self-deprecating jokes, even if they make us feel a little uncomfortable. Blue Labour proponent Maurice Glasman said recently Ed Miliband had an “angry, insurgent side to him”. If that didn’t shine through in his speech, it came through more strongly in his interview for Radio 4 the day after. He will never be John Prescott, but he’s consciously moving in that direction, and trying to find strength in his personal, distinct leadership. “I am my own man” as he told the conference hall.
It would be wrong to over simplify or exaggerate the importance of Blue Labour. There are many other influences at play, and some really big chunks of Blue Labour were missing from the leader’s speech. The tone felt too optimistic to be truly blue, which delivers a strong critique of the concept of progress and the jargon of “going forward”. The speech also had relatively little to say about family, friendships and neighbourhoods – a Blue Labour speech would have strengthened the rhetoric around co-operatives and mutuals and sounded – perhaps controversially – a little more Big Society. But a consistent narrative is emerging now and it’s an interesting one. The speech was criticised for being confused, but there are strong themes there. Next time Ed Miliband just needs to cut the length by a third, and spell them out.
Rowenna Davis is a journalist and author of Tangled up in Blue: Blue Labour and the Struggle for Labour’s Soul, to be published by Ruskin Publishing at £8.99 on 13 October. Advance signed copies available now exclusively at www.tangledupinblue.co.uk