Mr Ed’s fishing expedition

Ed Miliband’s speech to the Fabian Society conference today was intriguing. That isn’t to say that I agreed with it all. But it was a fascinating step in the political game and a piece of political rhetoric worth examining. Mr Ed has come in for a bit of criticism for the low-key start to his tenure as Labour leader. This was significant speech to a set-piece event. People were eager to hear what he had to say. And what he had to say was interesting in at least two respects. First, in its attempt to dissociate itself from the legacy of New Labour and chart a way forward. Second, it was a transparent attempt to articulate a route for Labour that will also appeal to left-leaning Liberal Democrats. It was a supreme exercise in triangulation. It was, quite clearly, a fishing expedition.

The strategy had a number of components.

The concept of the ‘Progressive Majority’

Spin doctors are forever coming up with such concepts. Many are pretty half-baked. But I think this one is going to resonate. Certainly it is better than Nick Clegg’s rather ungainly ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ , which has already been lampooned and I expect will pretty quickly sink without a trace. Mr Ed sought to create – or perhaps ‘recover’ – the sense that most people identify with the route he believes we should be heading. At the General Election:

Most people cast their votes for parties that talked about the need to make Britain fairer and more equal, that warned against the dangers of cutting the deficit too early and urged a deepening of democratic reform.

It’s easy to forget today, but that brief bout of Cleggmania was animated by this progressive hunger for change.

So there is a progressive majority in Britain. It’s just that we failed to attract enough of it to Labour’s cause to return a viable progressive government.

The dig at the perfidy of the Liberal Democrats will no doubt have registered.

The rejection of the language of “coalition” government

Left leaning Liberal Democrats are concerned that the price of coalition with the Tories is high. To see components of their own manifesto implemented the Liberal Democrats are propping up a right wing government which is wreaking havoc (as I discuss here). Mr Ed’s refusal to use the term Coalition and instead refer to the “Conservative-led government” at every opportunity is designed, one can only presume, to stoke those concerns.

Distancing from deregulation and technocracy

The target culture perhaps reached its zenith under New Labour. Government by target and technocratic top-down performance management led to an emphasis on delivery but a neglect of values – of a clear political project and coherent vision. Mr Ed identifies this as contributing to a disconnection between Labour and the “instincts and values of families across Britain”.

Mr Ed acknowledged:

we seemed in thrall to a vision of the market that seemed to place too little importance on the values, institutions and relationships that people cherish the most.

Light touch regulation was represented as being a wrong turn. He taps in to the anger at bankers’ bonuses and, I think equally pertinently,  with bankers’ attempts at blackmail with threats to leave the country. But he went beyond this to make a broader point. He spoke of Labour:

turning a blind eye to the impact of out of town retail developments and post office branch closures on our high streets. We knew all about the benefits of a flexible and mobile labour force, but we didn’t think enough about its impact on weakening social bonds and squeezing time with our families.

We live in a period of uncertainty.  A period of increasing inequality and social fragmentation. People are reeling from the impact of seemingly impersonal economic forces. This is compounded by insecurities generated by the government cuts agenda. We see incomes stalling and prices rising. An appeal to the non-financial, to social bonds, to the things “people cherish the most” is going to speak to something both primaeval and reassuring.

Unapologetic resurrection of the “squeezed middle”

Mr Ed argues:

The “squeezed middle”, a phrase some people might have thought I would never use again, is not a marketing concept but a reality of life for millions of people as a result of the economy we have.

It speaks to families working hard for long hours, stretching a limited family budget and who found the only way to increase their living standards was to increase their personal debt.

The squeezed middle is, in my view, a great rhetorical device. I can see why Mr Ed has returned to it. It is so flexible. The boundaries of ‘the middle’ are so vague. The characterisation of ‘the middle’ he offers can resonate with just about anyone. As cuts begin to bite, work intensifies, inflation takes hold, services are unavailable or will have to be paid for privately, and interest rates head north, the vast majority of the population are going to feel themselves squeezed. Few except the very rich self-define as being above ‘the middle’, even those who objectively are in the upper reaches of the income distribution. We only need to think of attempts to claim David Cameron or Nick Clegg as middle class.

Rediscovery of liberal values

Two of the biggest barriers to those of a liberal turn of mind switching their allegiances to Labour are its record on human rights and its presumption that government is the answer. Mr Ed seems to have had a change of heart on both points. How this plays out is going to be crucial.

In government, Labour were truly authoritarian. By privileging security over liberty Labour presided over a significant erosion of civil and human rights. Now, however, we hear that “we are determined to take liberty seriously as part of our governing philosophy”. Support for reducing detention from 28 days to 14 days is given as a concrete indicator.

In relation to the role of government, Miliband seeks to appeal to, and distinguish between, two traditions within the Labour movement. His argues that the Fabian tradition, which is based on big government doing things for people, has dominated. But that is no longer appropriate. Mr Ed is willing to characterise New Labour in government as “overbearing”; the “bureaucratic state … will never meet our real ambition as a party, that each citizen can be liberated to have the real freedom to shape their own lives”. He appeals to the other – lost – tradition in the Labour movement as the way forward:

The alternative strand, represented by the co-operative movement and the early trade unions, saw Labour as a grassroots, democratic movement to enable people to lead the most fulfilling lives.

we need to draw on that other tradition based on mutualism, localism and the common bonds of solidarity that captures the essence of our party at its best.

This will no doubt be positively received by Labour supporters, but it is clearly also designed to reach out to liberals who are suspicious of state solutions, advocate greater economic democracy and a vibrant civil society.

Will it work?

The big question is how will Liberal Democrats respond? That seems to me to be a challenging question. It depends in part on whether one wishes to look forward or backward. Whether one believes Labour is a leopard that can change its spots. In a typically pungent early response – Sorry Ed – You’re taking the p**s! – Councillor Richard Kemp looks back over the New Labour era and concluded that this wasn’t an overture that was welcome. I’m sure that is a feeling that will be shared by many.

Miliband’s speech comes hot on the heels of a debate over at Liberal Democrat Voice following a post which argued that the party should dissociate itself from the language of the ‘progressive’. The majority of commenters felt the Party should jettison the language of progressivity, with the possible exception of its technical economic sense, because it is too closely associated with Labour. They favoured something more distinctively liberal, although it wasn’t quite clear what that might be. It was also less clear whether jettisoning the language implied jettisoning the aspirations it signals. It may be that the Party decides a new lexicon is needed. But that is a risky strategy. It is a harder sell to say that we may be using different language – a language which will, at least initially, have no resonance – but we are referring to things that you value and you are being offered by other parties.

There were one or two comments over at LDV, however, that suggested that left-leaning Liberal Democrats might well be receptive to the signals that Ed Miliband is sending. He is, intentionally, pressing all the right buttons for some disgruntled Liberal Democrat voters. Those that frequent the blogosphere and participate in online debate are self-selecting: they are likely to be more active and engaged than the vast majority of those who voted for the party. Mr Ed isn’t pitching for the core activist vote. He doesn’t need to catch their attention. He’s pitching for those who are horrified by the Coalition cuts agenda who feel betrayed by the Liberal Democrats in power.

Whether the strategy works is likely to depend on whether voters are willing to look forward not back, and are ready to give credence to another round of claims to a new politics, so soon after the disappointments of the last.

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