A bold pitch for conservative Britain
The most important thing about a leader’s speech is that it should tell people something they didn’t already know. It could be an expectation confounded, a new policy rolled out, the enunciation of a fresh political vision or the visible growth of a leader’s personal qualities. We got all of that from Ed Miliband today.
The first thing we learned is that the Tories are in serious trouble if they think Miliband is going to be their secret weapon at the next election. The geeky, weird, lightweight they desperately want to define Miliband as was nowhere in sight today. For the first time voters got to see Miliband as his friends and colleagues see him; warm, funny, determined and charismatic. If he carries on like this, Labour won’t have to worry about his ability to make a connection with the British people.
The second thing we got was a taste of the policy detail that will form Labour’s programme for government at the next election. We didn’t get a whole manifesto, as some people appeared to want. But we got enough for the outline of a Miliband administration to come more clearly into focus. Fleshing out the practical implications of ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘pre-distribution’, he described a “one nation economy” involving radical changes in corporate governance, a major expansion of apprenticeships, a promise to break up the banks if they don’t reform themselves and measures to end the exploitation of foreign labour.
But perhaps the most important thing we got today was an answer to those who argue that Miliband’s electoral strategy is flawed because it is all about tacking left in the hope of picking up disillusioned Liberal Democrats and has nothing to say to those who voted Tory in 2010. In seizing the ‘one nation’ mantle of Disraeli and talking about the importance of “patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause”, Miliband was making a bold pitch for the votes of conservative Britain.
It would be a mistake to assume that this is another of the throwaway rhetorical gimmicks commonly found in leader’s speeches. It is based on what Miliband and those around him see as the decomposition of modern conservatism in the face of the economic crisis and the space it creates for Labour to make inroads into some of its natural constituencies of Conservative Party support.
This is a phenomenon that extends well beyond Britain. The conservative US columnist, David Brooks, recently described the split between the two main camps of what formed the conservative movement at the pinnacle of its power in the 1980s: economic conservatives and traditional conservatives. While the former tended to reduce conservatism to free markets and limited government, the latter was concerned with the social order and the decline of communal values:
“This sort of conservative didn’t see society as a battleground between government and the private sector. Instead, the traditionalist wanted to preserve a society that functioned as a harmonious ecosystem, in which the different layers were nestled upon each other: individual, family, company, neighborhood, religion, city government and national government.”
The retreat of David Cameron’s big society vision and the growing presence of a new and more vocal generation of economic conservatives on his backbenches (anatomised recently by Jon Cruddas) leave the field clear for Labour to become the champion social order and communal values. So the old game of analysing every policy shift to see where it sits on the left-right axis won’t necessarily tell us very much any more. It’s not the left and right will cease to have meaning. The point is that moments of severe economic strain often transform what it means to be left or right and create a new centre ground.
Just as Margaret Thatcher used ideas of freedom and individualism to win the support of many traditional Labour voters in the late 1970s, Ed Miliband is believes that themes of social patriotism and egalitarian populism can give Labour the kind of broad appeal it needs to win in 2015. David Cameron won’t be fighting Red Ed or Weird Ed at the next elections, so it’s back to the drawing board for the backroom boys at Conservative HQ.
This article first appeared on Progress Online.