Miliband’s message to Labour – no more money doesn’t mean no more hope

Ed Miliband is addressing the National Policy Forum in Birmingham this morning. These speeches from Miliband are interesting creatures – neither truly a party speech or a public aevent, but somewhere in between. On the one hand the audience is made up almost entirely of party “super-activists” – the kind who can recite sections of manifesto, go canvassing every weekend and know most MPs names by heart – they’re also probably LabourList readers, hello. That means the speech is necessarily aimed at the party faithful. But on the other hand, no party leader speech is ever without media. Yet most journalists don’t want to go to the NPF in Birmingham on a Saturday morning.

So what we end up with is a speech briefed out to journalists and a speech given to activists. They’re the same speech, but the emphasis is often entirely different.

The focus in today’s papers has been on how disciplined Miliband says Labour will be in government, saying:

“If we win the election, we will come to power in tougher economic circumstances than we have seen in generations and that will have to shape the way that we govern.  Our starting point for 2015-16 will be that we cannot reverse any cut in day to day, current spending unless it is fully funded from cuts elsewhere or extra revenue – not from more borrowing.

So when George Osborne stands up next week and announces his cuts in day to day spending, we won’t be able to promise now to reverse them because we can only do so when we can be absolutely crystal clear about where the money is coming from. 

It’s a hard reality. But I am clear about it, Ed Balls is clear about it, and everyone in the Labour Party should be clear about it too.  People will only put their hope in us if we show how we will make a difference.  But people will only put their trust in us if we show we are credible.

 Only if we have the discipline that the challenge of our times demand can we credibly change the direction of our country.” 

That’s unlikely to be something that most Labour activists – or MPs for that matter – will welcome. Cue uncomfortable shuffling in seats, staring at the floor and the recurrent image of doors being slammed in faces to the refrain of “you’re all the same”. But of course, there’s something that remains unsaid from Miliband, but which is the key to Labour’s time in government being “credible” but not entirely horrible and self-defeating. In fact, if done right, it could be transformative.

Take note of the fact that Miliband uses the phrase “day to day, current spending” when he talks about the cuts that Labour won’t be able to reverse. Also, note that Labour is only committed to Tory spending limits for the first year of government, which is fairly standard unless the plan is for Labour to come into government and immediately hold an emergency budget – which is possible but unlikely.

The plan that is becoming increasingly clear is for Labour to bring forward infrastructure investment thatis already planned and budgetted for, and do it in the early years of a Labour government. In fact the party are already conducting a review into how a Labour government could immediately bring forward spending on:

  • Housing
  • Schools
  • Broadband
  • Transport
  • Energy (national electricity grid)

Or to put it another way – “Build, Baby, Build”. And if you create jobs and growth by bringing forward infrastructure spending, you bring down the welfare social security bill. Which means you can start to consider reversing some of the more egregious cuts, like the Bedroom Tax.

That seems to be what all of the references to the 1945 government are about in today’s speech – forget Ed’s somewhat random references to sardines. The Labour government in 1945 set about changing the shape of the British economy and the terms of debate about how politics should be done and about what politics should do, as Miliband will say today:

“Clement Attlee always insisted getting the nation’s finances straight was the priority of any Labour government. His government set a clear path to repay the enormous wartime debt.  But no-one could say that the Attlee government didn’t make a difference at the same time, no-one could say it didn’t give people hope, no-one could say it didn’t turn our country round. So we need to learn those lessons again.”

The problem for Miliband is that no-one was in any doubt that Attlee (or Bevan) were deadly serious about changing the country, and in the guise of the National Health Service they had a “big idea” around which people could rally. Miliband and “One Nation Labour” very much aren’t there yet. So when people hear about keeping Tory spending limits and making different choices within the spending envelope, they get nervous. It sounds like tinkering. Because Ed Miliband can talk about radically changing the British economy as much as he likes, until we know what that looks like, we’re all being quietly hopeful in the dark.

What Miliband is trying to tell Labour today is that despite tough times, we should hold onto that hope, and that great things can be achieved. But people can only live on hope for so long – eventually, we’re going to need detail.

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