Today Britain heard two speeches from Ed Miliband at Labour’s annual party conference. Which depends upon one’s political inclination.
Conservative spin-doctors furiously spun the line that it was a speech of economic illiteracy. Did Miliband use the term ‘deficit’ once? What about any mention of Labour’s macroeconomic policy? Same old Labour, Tory broadsheets will scream, promise the world, then crash the car. Promises on the NHS bear little relevance to reality as they are based on unfunded policies that will again wreak havoc on the nation’s finances.
Labourites will instead focus on its popularity on the NHS, and Miliband’s policies to revive the much-revered institution- from taxing tobacco company profits to integrating physical health, mental health and social care. Labour commentators will also look to the party’s message on declining living standards under this Cameron-led coalition. They will point to the longest fall in living standards since 1870, and the fact that inflation has outstripped wage growth for 50 of the last 51 months.
Miliband sought to reinforce his oft-repeated message that his party stands up for the many and not the few. He pointed to his successes against Rupert Murdoch, his stance against energy companies, payday lenders, bankers and the Daily Mail. Under the Tories, he argued that ‘you’re working harder, for longer, for less. You’re on your own’. 5 more years of Cameron and Osborne will result in extortionate energy bills, rail fare hikes and exploitative private landlords. Almost pleadingly he stated ‘those that are locked out can get back in’.
Dividing lines drawn, Miliband’s strategy is clear to see. It is clearly the 35% strategy, whereby obtaining 35% of the public vote in May will see Labour win a majority. Thus, today’s speech was safe, not spectacular. It was solid, not one filled with glamorous policy announcements. It focused on Labour’s strengths (namely the NHS), not its weaknesses (the economy). It definitively catered to Labour’s core vote.
Miliband deliberately avoided explaining Labour’s macroeconomic approach. He knows that the party lags far behind the Tories on this issue. He’s subscribing to the George Lakoff approach in his book ‘don’t think of an elephant’. Lakoff writes ‘a basic principle… when you are arguing against the other side: do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame- and it won’t be the frame you want’. For too long, Miliband has been framing the debate on Tory terms. He’s tried to scramble about for a semblance of economic credibility by sticking to the script and fighting with George Osborne on the economy. This is a fight he can’t and won’t win. His inability to re-frame the debate has led to the Tory mantra ‘Labour crashed the car, don’t give them back the keys’.
Today was therefore a step in a different direction. Miliband will now focus on a positive Labour program, not dispelling Tory slurs. Today’s speech gave him the opportunity to unveil Labour’s 6 national goals (all to be achieved by 2025). Briefly, they are:
1. Ensuring that by 2025, as many young people leaving school or college will go on to apprenticeships as those that go on to university.
2. Halve the number of people in low pay.
3. ‘Create 1m more hi-tech jobs by securing the UK’s position as a world leader in green industries’.
4. Doubling the number of first-time buyers- ‘this party will get Britain building again’.
5. Help the self-employed as part of a move to ‘restore the link between growth and wages’.
6. Build a world-class NHS.
The feasibility of this plan remains to be seen, but the fact of the matter remains that Miliband is now conducting the debate on his own terms. His hope will be that in the tale of two speeches, his version will win through. If so, his philosophy, one of a ‘new ethic’ governing the 21st century will replace the discredited neo-liberal consensus of the past 3 or so decades. Miliband will continue to offer a stern rebuttal to the rugged individualism so admired by Margaret Thatcher, the flame of which has been eagerly kept alight by David Cameron’s coalition government.
Miliband will hope that the electorate will listen to this message. Vote David Cameron and you’re on your own, left to fight against the ravages of the free market. Vote Labour? We will build a better future for Britain, together. Cue Mr. Miliband himself ‘‘the British people can’t afford another 5 years of David Cameron’. That depends on which speech you were listening to today in the tale of two speeches.