Ed Miliband’s speech on Tuesday has been almost universally misunderstood.
Why universally misunderstood? Because Tuesday’s speech was a centrist, moderate speech dressed up in radical clothes, grabbing unabashedly at the label ‘Red Ed’. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Labour now welcomes the hatred of our enemies, seeks them out, and glories in their exposure – the bankers, the developers, the energy giants. The hatred of bad men enthuses the modern British left, while the right are disgusted by the radical pose.
Yet the speech was not at all radical, and the confusion, delight and dismay it has generated in various quarters is entirely unrelated to the approach Ed Miliband is taking. Look at the proposals made, and see how limited they really are:
As Chris Giles points out in the FT. The million homes promise is 40,000 homes a year less than Gordon Brown promised in 2007. Brown wanted three million by 2020 at a rate of 240,000 a year, Miliband only a million by the same date, a rate of 200,000 a year. In their delight at the ‘boldest housing pledge for a generation’, some of Labour’s more excitable supporters forgot it’s not even the biggest Labour housing promise in a decade.
The mechanisms for delivering this promise- a mixture of beefed up planning laws and a New Towns commission, are not new, radical or crucial either. After all, Gordon Brown’s Eco-Towns were not built because they were expensive and unpopular, not because of the planning laws or land grabbing developers.
Next, there’s a cut in business rates paid for by cancelling a cut in corporation tax. This is clearly not a Socialist appropriation of profit. It is, after all, still a Business tax cut.
Finally, there’s the Energy bill freeze. Presented by some on both left and right as a return to socialism, it’s simply a less progressive windfall tax, passing benefits directly to consumers. The policy is not particularly redistributive, as David Cameron will benefit more than a single mum in studio flat.1. Imagine if instead Miliband had announced a five billion windfall tax on the Big Six, and distributed the money to help the unemployed find work. Hold on, that sounds familiar.
The issue with the energy bill freeze is not whether it’s left or right-wing, but whether it’s a good idea to impose a price freeze when we need more investment in plants, in renewables and in energy infrastructure, and whether it makes sense given our commitment to reduce carbon consumption.
So if the Miliband plan is not a return to the seventies, why did Labour choose to present it as if it was? After all, the usual trick is not to give voters the impression you are more extreme than you really are. ‘Red Ed? Come off it!‘ as someone once said.
The answer lies with the dogs that didn’t bark, and who they didn’t bite.
Ed didn’t shift away from medium term deficit reduction, or the 2015-16 spending cuts. Nor, bedroom tax aside, did he promise to undo any welfare cuts.Nor did he offer tax increases, or spending commitments, or railway nationalisation, or any pledge on the minimum wage or to end the public sector pay freeze. Even the sections on the public services seemed to imply more another freeze than a turning back.2
On the big issues, the ones that will really decide the shape of the next Labour government, Ed Miliband gave the left nothing but rhetoric, and they gloried in their rejection, because they did not hear what he had refused to give them.
I’d argue that the single minute spent on the deficit was more politically significant than the other fifty-nine of his speech. It is that which will define any government he leads, which will define his choices and constraints and limitations.
Naturally, leaving out the biggest challenge a Labour government would face does create some political risks.
The first is that Labour do not get the credit for the harder choices we have made. By only talking ‘goodies’ we create a perception that we are just waiting for a chance to set phasers to spend, even when we are not. For the Tories, that presents an opportunity to paint us as well meaning fantasists, if they don’t fall into the trap of being pro-Gas bills. I half imagine David Cameron saying patronisingly,
“Ed, we all want lower bills, but if keeping prices down was as simple as passing a law, wouldn’t we have done it?
Actually, wouldn’t you have done it?’
Ed, I know you mean well but thinking you can just spend money and pass laws to solve hard problems is how we got into this mess.
It isn’t how we’ll get out.“
The second risk is that a message of immediate relief squeezes out Labour’s argument about national renewal and stable growth. Whatever one thinks of an energy price freeze and bedroom tax repeal, they are not mechanisms for investment, nor for infrastructure, nor for restoring long-termism in British investment and skills. By chasing living costs action, we may crowd out our argument about remaking Britain. Somehow, I don’t think a ‘who has the biggest price bribe’ will be a coherent election theme come 2015.
The most important question though is what the strategy does for expectations of a Labour government. I can see how a strategy that glories in radical rhetoric could win a majority. It’s not hard: If a Bills freeze freezes the polls, Labour wins.
So the risk that really niggles at me was not “Will Labour win the next election?” but “what sort of government would we be if we do?”. The prospect of Labour winning a thirty or forty seat majority and then imposing spending restraint and long-term investment not increased current spending, something the party is entirely psychologically unprepared for, I confess left me rather nervous.
Labour’s new strategy is an unusual one. It is to unite the left by seeming to be more left-wing than we really are, and define what we’d do for our friends by the squeals of our enemies.
The same policies Labour have embraced could have been argued for by saying that the pain of sustained cuts will be real, and we will deliver them year on year on year, but that our priorities are different, so we would do things differently.
That we chose to neglect the first part of the argument made the Leader’s speech seem more optimistic and more radical, but even if only mentioned for a minute, the hard bit was still there, and that changed the meaning of everything.
Forget everything else. That’s what really matters, it’s just a question of when it matters.