For Ed Miliband, his speech at Labour’s National Policy Forum today is a chance to offer his clearest account yet of the intellectual course he has charted in the last four years. The central message of his address will be that Labour now stands for “big reforms, not big spending”. This is both because only far-reaching structural changes to the economy will resolve the problems demonstrated by the financial crisis and the collapse in living standards, and because the deficit the party will inherit means the old answer of hiking public spending is no longer available.
He will devote a significant section of the speech to outlining Labour’s commitment to fiscal discipline, a subject on which some shadow cabinet members believe he has said too little. As he will remind delegates, Labour has pledged to “get the national debt falling as soon as possible in the next parliament” and “deliver a surplus on the current budget”. “For all of the cuts, for all of the pain under this government, Britain still has a deficit to deal with and a debt to pay down,” he will say. This is an important attempt to manage expectations and to remind NPF delegates (party activists and trade unions) that the generous spending settlements of the past will not be possible. As the experience of François Hollande demonstrates, centre-left governments can’t afford to raise false hopes of an end to austerity.
But the positive conclusion he will draw is that these fiscal constraints mean Labour has to be more, not less, radical in reforming the economy. It is, in a word, predistribution (one that unsurprisingly won’t appear in his speech): seeking to achieve more equal outcomes before the government collects taxes and pays out benefits by rewiring the market itself. To this end, Miliband has promised to significantly increase the minimum wage, to end “exploitative” zero-hours contracts, to freeze energy prices, to cap rent increases, to devolve £30bn of funding to city regions (a dramatic break with Labour’s centralising tendencies), to create two new “challenger” banks and to introduce worker representation on remuneration committees – radical proposals that do not cost government money. Another word for it, as a source close to Jon Cruddas told me is “Milibandism”.
Ahead of Tony Blair’s speech on Monday, to mark the 20th anniversary of his election as Labour leader, he will emphasise that he has “moved on from New Labour”, but also that he is “not going back to Old Labour”. A Labour spokesman told me: “This is not about looking back, this is an Ed Miliband model for 2015, it’s not a 1997 model, it’s not a 1975 model either.”
Miliband will add: “Our programme for government is more radical and more ambitious in the change we seek, crafted for the age we are living in and the challenges we face. Moving on from a time when rising inequality was just a fact of life – or when we acted as if there is nothing we could do about markets that aren’t fair or aren’t working. Not seeing big spending as the answer. Not going back to make do and mend.”
Labour strategists are keen to contrast this rich agenda with what they regard as David Cameron’s intellectual exhaustion. One told me: “They [the Tories] have run out of ideas, they have nothing left but a stale form of Thatcherism, which just wants to roll back the state in the hope of being able to offer tax cuts at some point.”
Miliband’s bet is that his radical programme will resonate with an alienated electorate longing for answers to the living standards crisis. But Tories will urge caution, arguing that voters can’t afford to “hand the keys back” to Labour (“the people who crashed the car”) when the recovery remains fragile and the deficit is still high (Conservative strategists rightly regard the message that “the job is not done” as crucial to victory). Which of these two narratives best reflects the country’s mood will determine the outcome in May 2015.