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10 September 2012

What Miliband can learn from Brendan Barber’s speech

The Labour leader should take up the TUC general secretary's call for an "Olympic-style national crusade".

By George Eaton

Brendan Barber’s valedictory speech to the TUC reminded us why he has been such a respected general secretary. It was intellectually coherent, well-delivered and humorous. Why, he quipped, if the government believes in sacking under-performing workers, is George Osborne still in a job?

The most notable section was on the Olympics, which Barber argued disproved the myth that “private is always better than public”. Here’s the key extract:

You can’t pick winners. Tell that to Bradley, Jessica or Mo, all supported by targeted funding.

Markets always trump planning, they say. Well look at the Olympic Park, the result of years of careful planning and public investment.

Private is always better than public, they argue. Not true, as we saw all too clearly when it came to Olympic security.

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Those summer weeks were a time when we really were all in it together. Not because we were told to be. But because we wanted to be. Athletes, workers, volunteers, spectators, residents, communities – all pulling together.

It’s an argument that Ed Miliband, who, unusually, isn’t addressing the TUC this year, should adapt for himself. While politicians should be wary of overtly politicising the Olympics, the Games have created the intellectual space for Miliband to argue for increased public investment and planning, and what Barber called “an Olympic-style national crusade”. As I wrote in my profile of Tim Soutphommasane, the Australian writer who is shaping the Labour leadership’s thinking on patriotism, a patriotic appeal to “rebuild Britain” after austerity could resonate with voters in 2015. Under the rubric of “national reconstruction”, Labour could champion policies such as a National Investment Bank, a school-building programme, and a “solidarity tax” on the wealthy.

Miliband’s best hope of winning the next election lies in offering an optimistic vision of a society of shared obligation and reward, something Bill Clinton did so effectively in his speech to the Democratic National Convention when he contrasted a “we’re-all-in-this-together” society with a “winner-take-all society“.

The irony is that “we’re all in this together”, with its appeal to voters’ instinctive patriotism, would have been a good slogan for the Tories if only they’d lived up to it. But their reckless reform of the NHS (“the closest thing the English people have to a religion”, in the words of Nigel Lawson) and their decision to abolish the 50p tax rate, an important symbol of solidarity in hard times, means that they have lost any claim they had to be a patriotic one-nation party. The road is clear for Miliband to establish Labour as the truly patriotic party.