A newscycle focussed on the short-term is a disincentive for politicians to look any further than scoring as many points as possible in the days, even hours, ahead. Breaking news, Twitter; a constant stream of reaction and counter-reaction leave little time for analysis or original thought. The Westminster version of this is PMQs. Good political theatre, proof that the protagonists have quick wits or quick-witted gag writers, but it does nothing to identify the vision or leadership that will define the nation’s choice at the next election.
Leaders need to have foresight and ambitious goals, especially now, post-financial crisis, when it is no longer business as usual. We are facing a world in which past orthodoxies have been discredited. This is as fundamental a challenge to neoliberalism as the collapse of the Soviet Union was to socialism. There is no past to cling on to. When Peter Mandelson stated in 2002: “We are all Thatcherites now”, he was acknowledging the cautious incrementalism of even powerful Prime Ministers like Tony Blair. Peter Oborne, in a recent article praising Ed Miliband’s approach, commented, “most senior politicians are condemned to operate within an exceptionally narrow set of parameters, meaning that they do little more than administer a system they inherited from others.”
But the future now belongs to those with answers that offer a cogent vision for the next decades. For a Labour leader looking to 2015 and beyond, reconciling failures of the past with a vision for the future requires conviction and a moral compass. Given continuing austerity and the failure of the Tory-led government’s economic policy, it will require determination to advance centre-left objectives.
Ed Miliband’s last party conference speech recognized that the old model of neoliberalism had failed. He sees it as the job of the Labour Party to set out an alternative – “a new bargain” – that would end the something-for-nothing culture that has plagued both the top and the bottom of society. Just as the feral 1% traded collateralized debt obligations that weren’t worth the paper they were printed on, so rioters in London broke into high street stores and took whatever they could. A comparison the Archbishop of Canterbury, and most of my constituents, understand but at which the plutocrats of the press feigned outrage.
So it is Ed Miliband’s job to defend the responsible middle: those that pay their taxes, work hard and rely on public services. As well as to stand up for the Tory-led government’s victims: the 400,000 extra children forced into poverty by 2015, the pensioners facing cuts in winter fuel allowance. Our task is to build a bridge between the people in the middle who work so hard for such scant reward and the most vulnerable. Both are being made to bear too heavy a load while others, with broader backs, are given a lighter load.
Meanwhile a Tory-led government is quite happy to invite tax avoider Philip Green to advise on waste. It permits unrestrained development across town and countryside alike at the behest of property developers while greedily accepting their donations. Similarly, the Tories have sought donations from private healthcare companies while privatising the NHS and from the insurance industry (£4.9m under Cameron) who will earn billions from restrictions on access to justice in the current Legal Aid Bill. Yet the banks still refuse to lend to small businesses and bonuses in the City are still out of control. This is a Government that defends the 1 per cent as it asks the public sector to pay for a crisis in the private sector. This is government by and for the 1 per cent, a new political settlement which owes more to the nineteenth century than the twenty first.
So it is no good pretending this is the age of Butskellism and Labour’s response should be managerial or incremental criticism. My constituents experience eviction, poverty, unemployment and degradation every day not despite but as a result of government policy. The rich are stealing from the rest of us. Ken Clarke says that you should be able to stab an intruder in your home. But if we started treating burglars the way the Tories treat corporate raiders, the correct approach would be to ask them to think more about the community as they scarper with your valuables.
Rick Santorum, who dead heated in the Republican primary in Iowa this week, told Rush Limbaugh: “Lady Thatcher said after she left office and reflected on her career, that she was never able to accomplish in England what Ronald Reagan did in America, and she said that she blamed the British national health care system.” A few years ago this would have been just a joke. But Cameron’s Tories increasingly look like the Tea Party tendency in the US. Sounding like The Waltons but acting like The Firm.
To plot the course for fundamental change, to challenge the grip special interests have on our political system, you need conviction and courage. Ed Miliband showed he had it in the immediate aftermath of the phone hacking scandal. For three decades Rupert Murdoch has been swanning in and out of Number 10, but the Labour leader called for an end to the cosy relationship between politicians and the press, which Cameron had to follow. He’s followed suit by taking on big energy firms, the banks and train operating companies. Not for a second has he blinked in the face of vested interests when they stand in the way of progress or equity.
Arnie Graf, the US community organiser who mentored the young Barack Obama, recently spoke about Ed Miliband’s “Kairos moment”, when circumstances and leaders collide. He said that: “Ed has the moment now, even in Opposition to win the argument about productive capitalism versus predatory capitalism”. It is an argument that we can only win as a party with a leader who articulates a long-term vision for Britain which puts the public interest before private greed.
Andy Slaughter is the Labour MP for Hammersmith & shadow justice minister