The commentariat might have obsessed over it past the point of self-parody, but Ed Miliband’s Labour Conference speech wasn’t too bad. He’s already said that New Labour is over. In Brighton last week, he seemed to ever-so-tentatively hint that his party’s wholesale embrace of free market capitalism might not have been the best idea either.
As crabbily essayed last post, the modern party conference is a soulless and undemocratic PR exercise, the grim pinnacle of our cultural fixation with the over-hyped individuals with whom the buck stops rather than actual political substance. There’s something faintly repulsive about the stage-managed spectacle of it when you watch it on TV – the wrist-dislocating vigour of the Chinese Communist Party-style applause, the gun-to-the-back-of-your-head grin-grimace of the Labour Party celebrities sat in the front row, the no-doubt obsessively vetted panoply of faces sat on stage behind the Dear Leader for no other reason than to create an adoring tableau of party unity.
The primetime media love it. Especially when there’s so much that the prevailing political consensus won’t let you talk about, it’s difficult to knit complex ideas and events into easy narratives that can slot into five minutes of the tea-time news. Throw in the fact that three main parties are ideologically near-identical on most issues and you’re faced with a real problem if keeping your job relies on making mainstream politics seem dynamic and interesting. The easiest solution? Reduce national affairs to the personalities of the leading figures involved. Who looks the most Prime Ministerial? Who looks the most ‘human’? Who comes across as the most ‘normal’? And the apex of this individualist obsession is the leader’s party conference speech.
On Tuesday, the media searchlight fell on Ed Miliband, performing his now-standard conference party-trick of speaking naturally without notes – like last year, a phrase repeated ad nauseum by breathless political correspondents – for about an hour. Rhetorically, it was quite good, at least by the dismal standards of twenty-first century British political oratory – contrived and hammy in places, not helped by his faux-soaring, float-y manner of speaking, but teetering dangerously close to being funny on a few occasions.
Staggeringly, though, said speech a) contained more than a crumb of political substance, and b) contained political substance that was faintly encouraging, albeit in a slightly feeble, desperate-for-change-after-thirty-years-of-brutal-neoliberalism kind of way.
To briefly take a weary step back and look at the situation with dead-eyed political realism, Ed Miliband was never going to roundly denounce elite-dominated super-capitalism and promise to nationalise the banks, let alone make a bold leap into the kind of post-growth economics needed to start salvaging the ecosystem. For twenty years, New Labour was effectively led from the centre-right. Even if his own views lie more towards what once would’ve been the Labour Party’s social democratic mainstream, Ed served his political apprenticeship during the Blair years, taught, like a whole generation of budding Labourites, that the Third Way was the only way.
And yet, however timidly and belatedly, Miliband seems to be inching away from that stifling consensus. The policy announcement bound to cause the most media consternation is his pledge to freeze gas and energy prices for twenty months if Labour wins the 2015 election. But there were other strikingly un-Blairite proposals too – the hazy but enticing suggestion that government should simply seize back land from construction companies that sit on it rather than use it, for one. His thoughts on globalisation were particularly intriguing:
“The cost of living crisis isn’t an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy – it is his economic policy. Let me explain why. You see, he believes in this thing called the ‘global race’. But what he doesn’t tell you is that he thinks for Britain to win the global race you have to lose – lower wages, worse terms and conditions, fewer rights at work. But Britain can’t win a race for the lowest wages against countries where wages rates are pennies an hour.”
It might be country miles away from ‘let’s abolish economic growth’, but you certainly wouldn’t get Tony Blair saying things like that.
Of course, these announcements have to be taken with a trowel-full of salt. There is, plainly, a cost of living crisis. The price freeze is almost approaching a step in the right direction – but how will Labour achieve it, and prevent the energy firms hiking prices immediately before the cap begins and again as soon as it ends? A million green jobs sound lovely, but where are they going to come from? Will the state intervene to create secure, skilled, highly paid jobs in areas that desperately need them, or will it be left to the fickle and self-interested private sector? Two hundred thousand new homes would help solve a deepening housing crisis – but would these be urgently-needed council houses in areas of need, or the kind of prohibitively expensive builds that sprout up wherever housing developers want them?
At very least, though, Miliband’s wooly proclamations mark the low-key but noteworthy return of two notions missing from mainstream politics for far too long – one, the idea that the state can stand up to the private sector and doesn’t just exist to brush inconveniences out of its way. Two, the idea that the private sector isn’t always an unfailingly moral force for good we should entrust with vitally important social functions. It’s a fairly pathetic situation for left-wingers to find ourselves in – getting excited by the mere reappearance of logic we’d see taken to infinitely more radical conclusions if we had our way. But that’s how bad things have got, unfortunately.