A tale of three speeches – Clinton, Obama and Miliband

Anthony Painter

What a marvellous week for those of us who avidly enjoy the art of the speech. At the Democratic National Convention there was Michelle Obama, Julian Castro, John Kerry and Presidents Clinton and Obama. If you were stuck in London, then there was Ed Miliband’s ‘pre-distribution’ speech to pore over. The contrast, unfair in many ways given the nature of the speech, has been sharp. Yet, this is a good thing – in under four weeks Miliband has to deliver the speech of his life and it’s good know how far he has to travel.

Already Miliband’s speech has been pulled this way and that by Hopi Sen, Rob Marchant, Rafael Behr, Jonathan Freedland and, on the right, Neil O’Brien – all from different perspectives and all worth reading. If you have time for five pieces on ‘pre-distribution’ read those. If you’ve time for a sixth stay with me for a couple of minutes.

I left Policy Network’s brilliantly organised event on a ‘new political economy’ with exactly the same sense of deep frustration as following last year’s Labour conference speech and probably for the same reasons. Miliband will argue that this was a thematic speech to a wonkish audience. As Leader of the Opposition your audience is never the one in the room – would Nick Robinson be there if it were? Your audience is always the nation.

Let’s put the word ‘pre-distribution’ to one side for a moment – who knows it might be word of the year but the issue is not the word. It’s deeper than that. For at least twenty years or so, the mindset of the British media, business and political establishment has been don’t interfere with the market. By all means share the fruits of economic success and try to give people better means with which to compete but don’t tamper with the machine. Suddenly a political leader, for the first time since the late John Smith, is arguing that we should get under the bonnet and see if we can get the vehicle running better.

This simple fact is profoundly important. To Miliband’s credit, his argument is audacious and, as is his knack, he has us all talking about his ideas again. If you are going to be bold then, well, be bold. We’ve often been promised a ‘new economy’ but Miliband is genuinely arguing for one. And yet, his argument fell short of being bold.

To look at the other side of the split-screen – the Democratic National Convention – it is on the Obama speech that he should focus. Bill Clinton’s speech has received greater plaudits but Obama’s speech is ultimately a better model for what Miliband has to achieve. The beauty of the Clinton speech is that it integrated complexity with simplicity and boy was the delivery commanding. It was a better speech than Obama’s as a construction. Ultimately though, it was a review of Obama’s years in office and a confrontation of the Republicans. It was aimed at motivated the base.

Obama’s was addressed more to the nation. It was about a choice for a nation’s future. His fundamental argument was that citizenship made for a better country – economically and socially. There is a choice between seizing the future together and turning back to the malaise of the last decade. It didn’t scale the heights of his 2008 speeches and the seams of micro-targeting can now be seen whereas the 2008 Obama was transcendent. He has now been normalised; the messiah no more. But he is still eyeing the nation and asking it to take responsibility for its collective future rather than turning in on its self – enlightened self-interest rather special interest.

Clinton’s approach can be reserved for a special guest appearance by Tony Blair at the 2014 conference or it might be for Ed Balls. Too often Labour is speaking to itself and when it is not, it talking about the past or the Tories. Miliband’s job is to both reach out and beyond. This is where he is falling short.

Actually, his basic argument is the right one. It is clear that we shouldn’t just seek to get back to business as usual – an economy that booms and crashes while leaving too many excluded from any hope of clawing their way up. Inequality is economically damaging. It creates debt. It sucks demand out of the economy in good times as well as bad. It encourages businesses to seek to low road instead of the high road to economic success. Low paid, low value workers are treated as commodities when their capability should be unleashed instead.

None of this comes via an act of God. It is the result of choices we have made. We neither have the energy, dynamism and record of investment in science, technology and research of the United States nor the skills, wages and security of Germany. It’s not about culture predominantly. It’s about institutions and our institutions encourage flexibility but completely expose us to financial risk and fundamentally under-invest in people, ideas, infrastructure and technology at the same time. Miliband is asking precisely the right questions.

The centre-left is about hope or it is about nothing. Yes, we can construct new institutions. We can change the way that welfare works so it helps physically and mentally proficient people up rather than hurling them into the maelstrom of insecure work while waiting them to pop out again or allowing them to languish out of work altogether. We can design childcare to coordinate with work in an affordable way while investing in the necessary skills for economic opportunity. And yes, we can insist that firms take their responsibility to pay people a decent wage more seriously – encouraging them to invest in the process. Yes, we can design new institutions to bring together networks of finance, support small, growing businesses and invest in our physical infrastructure including housing. All of this can be done and, indeed, has been done – where did those institutions in Germany, the US, Japan, and elsewhere come from? Not from heaven I can assure you.

We are talking about fundamentally changing the way that Government works in order to re-structure capitalism. This isn’t what Labour’s policy currently is, however. Workers on remuneration committees, some warm support for the living wage, changes to corporate reporting and some interventions in favour of the consumer are all sound policies. They aren’t transformative though. An active industrial policy and a British Investment Bank will have a bigger impact. But is it enough to create an economy with American-style dynamism and German-style institutional robustness?

Ed Miliband should go for it. Get the politics right, build coalitions, find a better way of expressing the case and of making the argument for sure. Ultimately, it’s about the substance. If he believes that there is a way of building new institutions then these speeches and the politics, analysis and substance around them matter. And actually, I completely agree with him that this newly structured capitalism can be achieved – moreover, it should be. The task in a short space of time is to find a way of both substantiating the case further and presenting it in a far more lucid fashion.

Ultimately, it comes down to a choice. So do we want an ambitious nation that recognises its native brilliance and its ability to create and adapt? Or do we want a fearful nation that turns in on itself, pitting one interest against another, with each trying to grab what they can of the table and hating each other in the process? Politics always comes down to hope versus fear. After a Summer of Olympics triumph, maybe there is an opening for the politics of hope. Miliband might as well give it his best shot. The nation might just listen. What other strategy is there? And it’s the right thing to do.

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