Followers of Millwall football club have a favourite chant. “No one likes us”, they sing, “but we don’t care”. It is defiant. Aggressive. Invariably uttered in support of a losing cause.
This week’s Labour conference has emitted a similar roar. Ed Ball’s unwavering defence of the economic agenda rejected so overwhelmingly at the last election. Ivan Lewis’ bravura assault on the media barely hours before they passed judgment on his leader.
The political rule book was being torn up in front of our eyes, even before Ed Miliband arrived on stage. He did so with the opinion polls snapping at his heels and the electorate uncertain of his agenda, or even his identity. No matter. “We just can’t get enough”, was the tune pumped out to delegates in the minutes before he strode onto the stage. You may not like Ed Miliband. But we don’t care.
The old game plan for Labour in opposition was clear. Ingratiate yourself with big business. Embrace aspiration. Rub shoulders easily with the establishment. Tony Blair wanted everyone to like him, and went to extraordinary lengths to ensure they did.
Ed Miliband rose. He was speaking from Liverpool; “Labour Liverpool”. Large swathes of the country had turned blue 18 months ago. Not Liverpool. Liverpool likes Labour. It doesn’t care.
His predecessors had abided by the golden rule of British politics. Don’t mess with Rupert Murdoch. Not Ed. “I’m going to do things my own way”, he intoned; “Nobody ever changed anything on the basis of consensus. Or wanting to be liked”.
The nation had been rent asunder by riots. David Cameron had threatened to call in the army, fire plastic bullets, bring out the water cannon. The polls showed most people supported him. But not Ed. “I’m not with the Prime Minister”, he said, “I will never write off whole parts of the country by calling them sick”. People may want rioters thrown out of their council houses. Ed doesn’t care.
New Labour had stood alongside vested interests. Ed wouldn’t. The energy companies. The banks. Fred Goodwin. Ed doesn’t like them. And he doesn’t care who knows it.
His predecessors had kept their hands off big business. No longer. “When I am Prime Minister, how we tax, what government buys, how we regulate, what we celebrate will be in the service of Britain’s producers”, he warned, “And don’t let anyone tell you that is the anti-business choice”. He’d be a hands on Prime Minister. Business may not like it. By why should he care? “I will take on vested interests wherever they are because that is how we defend the public interest”.
People have been calling for definition from Ed Miliband. Today they got it. They have been calling for a narrative. From now on, they will be able to read it. They have been demanding strategy. From today they will be able to follow it.
New Labour’s brand of neo-liberal conservatism has been formally buried. Liberal, socially progressive interventionism is the new way. The Ed Miliband way.
“I am not Tony Blair” he said. The audience cheered. The rest of the country used to like Tony Blair. So what. Ed Miliband doesn’t care.