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Tuesday, September 28, 2010 

A new generation for change?

It would be unkind and unfair to categorise Ed Miliband's first speech proper as Labour party leader as being remarkable only in being unremarkable. No speech which challenged so much of what became New Labour orthodoxy, even if without offering any actual alternative in many cases, could possibly be described as such. It was however, in spite of the content, delivered soporifically, nervously and received in a similar fashion by the audience, unsure on many occasions whether they should be applauding or not. Harriet Harman was certainly not the only person in the hall who should have been pulled up for her hypocrisy in applauding the new leader's personal admission that he believed the Iraq war to have been wrong.

The stony faces of the old Labour cabinet on hearing Miliband go the mile which was probably required, cynical as it also undoubtedly was, may go some way in winning back old supporters, delighted at seeing them aghast at their new overlord raking over the past which they themselves refused to revisit. All the same, this was hardly Khrushchev in 1956, and probably not even Theresa May and the "nasty party", not least because Miliband is not in a position of power in which to put his changes into immediate effect, even if we knew what they were going to be in practice. More like Khrushchev, Miliband was also complicit in some of which he denounced. It takes a lot of chutzpah to talk of how his parents arrived in Britain and the opportunities which this country gave them when he voted in the last parliament for a stricter asylum system. It takes even more to lament how Labour got it wrong on civil liberties and how the party should return to being the party of them when he voted for all of the key measures which made this a less free country. For someone who quite rightly said the most important word in politics should be humility, he should have added that he had personally got it wrong, even while being loyal to his party. It would have emphasised his authenticity exactly when he needs to be seen as fundamentally honest.

This was first and foremost, somewhat like Nick Clegg's effort last week, a speech directed at his party rather than the country. It was also incredibly formulaic, even as introductory speeches go. It ticked all the modern political speech boxes: the moving life story, the love for parents and family, the quoting of the possibly imaginary "ordinary" voter he encountered, concerned about the effect immigration was having on his friend's wages; the only thing he didn't thankfully do was emulate Cameron and walk around the stage in the deeply insincere manner which he has so perfected, operating without notes. If this was truly the result of work since late Saturday afternoon, then it shouldn't be judged too harshly. He attempted to master the difficult balance of putting the conference at their ease and flattering them while also having to address their failings, even if they weren't personal ones. He told them they had lost 5 million votes; how do we get them back?

No one should have expected him to provide immediate answers and he didn't. Rather, it at times seemed instead like an uncomfortable, overly confrontational attempt to get everything that went wrong with New Labour out in the open and done with in one massive purge, echoes again of Krushchev, however deceptive. As such it didn't really work, not least because he seemed to get things the wrong way round at least once, or at least the transcript has him as doing so, strangely during his espousal of what New Labour got right: surely they were right to emphasise that being tough on the causes of crime was as important as being tough on crime itself, not the other way round? Or was that a Freudian slip, based on guilt at how New Labour had in fact been tough on crime but forgot about the causes in its perpetual triangulation strategy? (Update: neither, see comments)

That which he did get right was well put across, rising above the general tenor: he promised not to oppose every cut, he recognised that migration from within the EU had not been handled properly, was emollient on welfare reform, refusing to give in to stigmatisation, and was strongest of all on admitting the party had become naive about markets, recognising that work is not all that matters, correctly identifying the paradox of being the biggest consumers in history whilst yearning more than ever for that which business cannot provide. If he was to develop thinking on that in particular then he will move the party beyond just policy and into a strategy for changing the way the country feels and thinks about itself, vital to providing a vision of an alternative, optimistic Britain.

The real problems with both the speech and him personally were unfortunately manifest. On paper, it reads well, or at least as well as any recent speech by any main political leader in this country; spoken, he just couldn't seem to find the right delivery. It had echoes at times of Iain Duncan Smith making his ill-fated quiet man conference address; it really was that bad. Certainly, he's got more than enough time to alter that, but first impressions do have an impact. For someone who's just spent the last four months speaking day after day to audiences it was especially lacking. Moreover, that the rhetoric was all but identical in places to that of either Clegg or Cameron also stands against it; perhaps we shouldn't expect anything drastically different when he is superficially so similar to both men and that style is deemed to be successful, yet that doesn't alter how empty it felt.

Worst of all was the idea that he somehow represents a new generation, a new generation for change as the slogan abysmally has it (and surely we can also now consign Kings of Leon to the dustbin of musical history now that they're the soundtrack to the Labour party conference). We really can't seem to get away from change as a motif, as vacuous as it currently is, and Miliband's variety is the most dubious yet. The fact is that even if he himself is leading this new generation, the vote for the shadow cabinet overwhelmingly shows that it's the same old faces that will be making it up. Can they really expect us to swallow that they will be the agents of change, sweeping away New Labour's mistakes when so many sat in angry silence as Iraq was dealt with? It simply isn't credible, and as a result, the entire speech wasn't. As argued yesterday, just as Miliband needs to be determined to make this a one-term government, and he did an efficient job of attempting to woo disaffected Liberal Democrats in the main, especially by not even mentioning them, he also needs to be prepared to fail, and anoint a real new generation that can beat the Tories in 2020 if he doesn't manage it in 5 years' time.

If it's odd to be disappointed and pessimistic after a speech which did so much which those of us on the left urged to be done for so long to reinvent Labour, part of it is the same nervousness that Miliband himself must have felt. How will the voters react? How will the media react to this obvious repudiation of New Labour, even when it should be apparent to everyone just how the party needs to move on from that era? Some will undoubtedly continue to persist in the delusion that it was the tiny movement from ultra-Blairism under Brown which resulted in the party losing, even when it was obvious he would have led the party to a defeat potentially even worse than Brown did. Most of all though it's the feeling that Ed simply cannot lead the party to victory, regardless of what he does. It's true, as Jenni Russell writes, that David Miliband could not have given the speech which his brother did today. It also remains apparent that Ed is still the best possible leader of the five contenders. It's simply that he, like the other four, is simply not the clean break with the past which the party desperately needed. It's difficult to be the optimists when there is still so much to be disillusioned, concerned and worried about.

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surely they were right to emphasise that being tough on the causes of crime was as important as being tough on crime itself, not the other way round?

No - the idea is that Old Labour had always emphasised tackling crime by removing its causes (inequality, extremes of poverty), and what Blair & Blunkett added was the emphasis on being tough on crime here and now. Actually that's a massive simplification - they also added a completely new conception of what the causes of crime are, with less emphasis on poverty and more on the personal fecklessness of the "underclass". The coalition are tiptoeing away from all this stuff; the big test for Ed M. will be whether he can go with them.

Guess I'm still showing my relative youth and ignorance there. Thanks for putting me straight.

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