We know the thesis – now for the experiment

Ed MilibandBy Anthony Painter / @anthonypainter

The Fabian conference is where you get a spontaneous round of applause for saying you believe in electoral reform but you are met with a stony silence for a bankers are amoral chancers line. So it went in Ed Miliband’s speech this morning. In other words, it’s a good forum to present your thesis. In a meticulously argued speech, that is exactly what Ed Miliband did.

His argument went as follows: there is a ‘progressive majority’ in Britain; Labour failed to speak for this majority and so lost; and if it is to represent these progressives again then Labour must change, offering a new economic approach, a refresh of its values, and authentically epitomise the new politics.

Why politicians always have to seek some unifying label is beyond me. As labels go ‘progressive majority’ is amongst the weakest – up there with ‘squeezed middle’ and ‘alarm clock Britons.’ What Nick Clegg means when he says he is a progressive is completely different from what Ed Miliband means. It is not a different approach to achieve the same ends. The ends are different. Someone in the audience said that with a poll rating of 7% fewer people believe in the Liberal Democrats than believe that Elvis lives. Well, that’s seven times more than believe they are first and foremost ‘progressive.’ A majority are ‘progressive’ and no-one is at the same time.

But once the speech got beyond this counter-productive distraction there was much in the argument. There is a sense that these cuts are too far, too fast; the majority do have a notion of fairness and equality and much of what this coalition does will offend that; and they instinctively know that there is something wrong and unaccountable in our politics. They are just decent British people who want to get on but not at the expense of the misery of others. This is a British notion of justice that is conditional, reciprocal, but deep and real. They can be optimistic. They can be realists. They are grounded and pragmatic and they they know political bunkum when they see it. The test of Labour’s renewal is how it speaks to these people in all their infinite diversity. So drop the labels – most especially the weak ones.

The very great fortune that Labour has is that its traditions provide many of the raw materials for constructing a compelling offer in 2015. Ed Miliband dumped the Fabian tradition here at the Fabian conference – albeit gently. Out with Tony Crosland, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and in with the co-operative and mutualist traditions of social faith, early trade unionism and community organising. At least he came to the Fabians’ conference to dump them rather than just sending them a text or ignoring their phone calls.

And what this reappraisal and rediscovery does is give him a new language with which to talk about the institutions that matter to people and are under threat by the coalition. Sure Start and libraries were cast as part of the infrastructure of community rather than simply ‘services.’ This is a deep and lucrative mine.

This speech also began the task of confronting Labour’s reputation for economic management. By accepting that Labour got it wrong on the economy, eg by failing to regulate the banks properly and leaving the economy unbalanced, he has begun to address, regardless of anything else, the biggest obstacle to a Labour return to power. The notion that it was Labour’s management of public finances that led to the recession is a laughable one. Labour has two separate issues though – its reputation for economic management and its reputation for fiscal competence. By focusing on the former they are trying to get away without addressing the latter. So Miliband hasn’t travelled the distance that he needs to – yet. At least now he is on the journey. He might as well travel it quickly for it is an arduous one.

So this was a thoughtful speech for a thinking audience. It was a speech Ed Miliband needed to give. The politics are such that he needed to reassure those who are itching for change. Interestingly he used much of the New Labour language of resisting ‘one more heave’ in order to bounce off New Labour. The substance though is very different.

Sometimes this leaves him in a strange political place that he will be able to get away with within the Labour movement but not outside. How is it possible to reject the expansion of the academy programme while preaching values of co-operation, mutualism, and localism (as opposed to local governmentalism)? For this reappraisal of values to be convincing, he must be prepared to travel to places he never expected to find himself at. Then people outside of Labour may start to really notice. It will give the arguments he must make – against a crazy NHS reorganisation for a start – much more force.

It is fashionable and in many ways right to argue that Labour shouldn’t provide a blueprint without assessing where people really are. If that is the case, it will be necessary to accept that sometimes they are where we don’t wish them to be. The only alternative to that, and this was the best line in the speech, is to change the ‘common sense’ of the age. There were elements of this speech that could have some force in achieving that. The detail will follow as the year progresses. All we know is the thesis. Now for the experiment.

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