Generating responsibility in society, from top to bottom; crafting a something-for-something culture; battling vested interests in the name of the public good; building a British capitalism that is less dependent on financial services; ensuring that wealth is less concentrated in the South of England; demanding that business leaders offer new apprenticeships to our young people to deliver real skills; making it possible for each generation to enjoy a better quality of life than their predecessors.
These were the key themes in Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference last week. And each of them, every single one of them, was
repeated by David Cameron yesterday.
It happens very rarely that a Conservative Prime Minister directly echoes his Labour opponent. But Ed Miliband’s speech explained the unique challenges that face Britain in a way that no other politician had yet done. A week on from Liverpool, even his severest of critics must now admit that Ed set the agenda this conference season.
The question remains, then, why, if Miliband’s analysis was so powerful, is he not now being spoken of as Britain’s next Prime Minister?
One of the reasons is Miliband’s occasionally stilted speaking style. Another is the entrenched media scepticism about his leadership that has undermined him from the start. But most of all it results from the fact that although he has identified the challenges that Britain faces, he has not provided a persuasive account of how we should overcome them. More than that, when he has proposed a solution, it has too often involved the central state.
Writing in response to the Conservative conference this week, Miliband argued that the difference between the Tories and Labour lay in the fact that Labour was willing to use the power of government when the Tories were not. “All the time in the rules it sets –such as on tax and procurement– governments make judgements”, he argued, “encouraging one type of behaviour compared to another.”
This is true. But it is not a powerful enough rallying-call for the British people in a time of political trouble. The answer to the challenges that Britain faces cannot be more government alone. The answer has also to involve you and me. The crisis requires changes in the way that we do business, the way we relate to each other in our communities, the way that we bring up our children. Not just changes in government action.
The Labour leader might not like the “can do optimism” that David Cameron offers. He might not relate to its vision of “get-up-and-go”. But the British people do. They don’t want just to have things done for them by someone else, least alone by those in Westminster and Whitehall. They want to be part of the solution to Britain’s troubles, not just part of their cause.
Ed Miliband knows this. But at the moment the British people don’t know that he does. In the months ahead, he must put this right. He must showhow we can come together in our own lives to help overcome the current crisis, even while the Conservatives are still in office. If he does that then he might well succeed not only in shaping the agenda of British politics but in helping to bring about the new political era of which he dreams.
Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.