Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference was the most ambitious delivered by a party leader for a generation. Last year he called time on New Labour but this year he called time on the entire neoliberal settlement that has governed the UK since the 1980s.”It’s all got to change,” he cried, reasserting his ambition to do for the left what Thatcher did for the right. Just as she shifted the centre ground of British politics to the right, so he now hopes to pull it leftwards.
He turned his fire on Rupert Murdoch, Fred Goodwin (finally issuing a Labour apology for that knighthood), Southern Cross (“stripping assets for a quick buck”) and the energy monopolies, vowing to break up “rigged markets” and, in his favoured phrase, take on “vested interests”. No longer would Labour treat all businesses as equally worthy, he said, drawing a sharp distinction between “the producers” and “the predators”. “For years as a country we have been neutral in that battle. They’ve been taxed the same. Regulated the same. Treated the same.Celebrated the same,” he told the hall. “They won’t be by me.”
But while Miliband pinpointed Britain’s woes with laser accuracy he struggled to identify solutions. This was a remarkably policy-light speech, with the most memorable policy – a £6,000 cap on tuition fees – one that even he accepts is imperfect. He insisted that “it wouldn’t be responsible to make promises I can’t keep.” But his critics will contend that Miliband still hasn’t explained what the point of Labour is when there’s no money to spend.
With this in mind, Miliband launched his first sustained attempt to convince voters that they could trust his party with their taxes. He promised that the next Labour government would “only spend what it can afford” and, echoing Ed Balls, conceded that he would not able to reverse many of the coalition’s cuts. But he rightly refused to apologise for Labour’s alleged “profligacy” and avoided legitimising the myth that overspending, rather than the recession, was to blame for the UK’s mammoth deficit.
Whatever the outcome of the next election (and another hung parliament remains a distinct possibility), we can now say with some certainty that Miliband will never form a coalition with Nick Clegg. After Clegg lambasted him as one of Gordon Brown’s “backroom boys”, Miliband hit back, branding Clegg a “Tory” and mocking him for his broken tuition fees pledge.
But while his attacks on Clegg felt tired and predictable, his speech came to life when he directed his ire at David Cameron. In the most memorable passage of his address, he denounced Cameron’s plan “to cut the 50p tax rate for people earning over £3,000 a week” and cried: “How dare they say we’re all in it together.” It was reminiscent of Cameron’s own attack on Labour in 2009 (“how dare Labour lecture the Tories about poverty”) and proved that Miliband is at his most effective when he is at his most passionate. Displaying his intellectual heft, Miliband channelled JK Galbraith and denounced the Prime Minister’s belief that “you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer.”
This was a serious, intellectually coherent and occasionally inspiring speech. But while Miliband has a departure point (neoliberalism) and a destination (social democracy), the route remains unclear. In time, he must identify and then articulate the policies needed to fulfil his tremendous ambition.