Ed Miliband’s Labour party conference speech was never going to get a very positive response. For one thing, he had lost the expectations game before he even opened his mouth.
Everyone picked out their favourite – or least favourite – bits from their advanced text and before most of us had even had our first morning coffee the Daily Mail and the Sun were announcing he would declare war on capitalism, the Daily Telegraph was having a nice big panicked special cuddle with themselves about potential new levies for businesses, and the Daily Mirror was insisting that his speech marked the end of the “pig” society, complete with not only a picture of David Cameron wearing a fake pig snout, but – even more ridiculous – a picture of Ed Miliband with his jaw in the air looking tough.
Miliband was never going to give all those people what they wanted to hear. He wasn’t going to declare war on capitalism – although if ‘capitalism’ really is intrinsically inseparable from ‘asset stripping’ and ‘tax avoiding’ then perhaps he should. But of course it isn’t. Unless you actually are a socialist, of course, which the Daily Mail, unless they’ve had some kind of amusing divine conversion, isn’t.
The business loudmouths – not the real business community of Britain, but those who treat the market as a religion and any criticism of any profiteer as some kind of horrible blasphemy – are, quite frankly, embarrassing themselves by denouncing Ed Miliband as “anti-business” and having a tantrum about it. The “business” world – the loudmouth bit of it, that is – has been having its nappies changed by the rest of us for far too long.
The silliest thing is that corporations and businesses really are people, this isn’t some daft pro-capitalism propaganda truism, but they just cannot handle being treated like people. The fact is that the government makes distinctions between people every time they announce a policy, with no qualms whatsoever.
When the Conservatives speak of “good immigration” and “bad immigration,” or Muslims who live by “our” values, and Muslims who don’t, or “genuinely disabled” benefit claimants, and people who fake illness, or when they support tax breaks for married people, or support tax credits for people who “save and do the right thing,” or support tax breaks for people who make charitable donations in their wills, or say that housing benefit should be allocated depending on whether you’re in work or taken away if you join in with the riots, or any number of other policies (some of which, by the way, are also perfectly sensible ideas), do they mean this as an attack on everybody? Perhaps we should assume from their reaction to Miliband’s speech that they do.
It’s hardly left-wing to advocate incentives for successful businesses and better lending for SMEs. That isn’t “playing to a union gallery”, as Sir Digby Jones put it: far from it.
His notion of incentivising – incentivising! Not regulating! Incentivising! – good business practice with tax cuts is actually extraordinarily pro-business; much more so than the 20% VAT, plastic bag regulations, and stalling zero growth that the Tories are offering, in the same way that Working Family Tax Credits, Child Care Tax Credits, and even (whisper it) a raise in the minimum wage are pro-work ethic, much more so than just hacking people’s benefits away. A wide-open goal for Labour is surely that the coalition swears they want to “make work pay” and lower the tax burden whilst scrapping all these tax credits which essentially amounts to a 41% tax hike for Britain’s lowest paid workers.
My complaint with Ed Miliband’s speech, then, isn’t that it’s anti-business, or even that it’s left or right or Labour or Tory or Red or Blue or Purple or any other academic irrelevant labels we’ve all managed to come up with to box everybody’s ideas into lines so we can easily know what we think about them and what that says about us.
My complaint with his speech is that he’s selling himself short. Why adopt a damaging Conservative policy – letting people in full time work leap frog the housing benefit queue for example (finding secure housing is the first step on the road to employment for so many people: prioritising people in employment is a bit like letting people who managed to treat part of their illness themselves with over the counter medication jump the NHS waiting list) – when what you actually believe in is 100% balanced, sensible, ethical and correct?
There’s plenty wrong with Miliband’s speech, not least the total and utter lack of actual policy substance, his Thunderbird-puppet style delivery, and his alienating habit of speaking like an academic theoretician rather than a human being who gives a damn about other human beings. Andy Burnham’s education speech may have also been thicker on rhetoric than detailed ideas but at least his eyes lit up and his voice changed pitch occasionally.
There’s a great episode of the West Wing where Jed Bartlet wins a debate because at the eleventh hour his communications team realise that because the public are so irreversibly convinced Bartlet is arrogant, he can be. There are not many parallels between Ed Miliband and Josiah Bartlet but he needs to face facts: the public are irreversibly convinced that he is a red-rose-carrying trade-unionist-loving pro-tax left-winger. Every time he takes a shot at the unions or the unemployed, he loses on every front. Even people that support this kind of blueish stance won’t respect a “leader” who simply repeats what his advisors tell him. And you can bet your boots that the actual left, even a lot of cautiously-Labour centrist voters, will cringe at his random mentions of things like “irresponsible strikes” – an empty phrase, surely, if ever there was one – and constant refusals to address the gaping, horrific holes in the Welfare Reform Bill, or the complete unreliability of Atos’ Work Capability Assessments.
It’s not even a matter of policy so much as it’s a matter of leadership. If he just does whatever his speechwriters – who clearly don’t have a bloody clue, frankly – tell him at this stage, what on earth kind of Prime Minister would he be?
He is being denounced as a red-blooded hardline socialist for suggesting that businesses and corporations are people, and he is being denounced as a closet Tory for suggesting that low paid working people feel that they’re not rewarded properly for their efforts. He is being denounced as “weird” and then denounced for caring if people think he’s weird and not caring if people think he’s weird in equal measure. This whole discussion demonstrates the deepest flaws of British politics.
He should be denounced for talking like someone who has eaten an A-level politics textbook and is choking it up awkwardly in place of a real speech. The tragedy is that underneath it all, his approach to governing Britain is probably just what we need. But if his advisors don’t believe it, if his colleagues don’t believe it, and if he doesn’t even believe it himself, how on earth are we supposed to?