Ed Miliband is a conflicted and compromised man. That much was evident from his keynote speech to his party’s conference in Liverpool yesterday.
There is so much that can – and has – been said about the speech, not least its intellectual incoherence. But more importantly is what the speech says about the man. It reveals personal insecurities, inner turmoil, divided loyalties, a confused policy direction and a certain fear of powerful interest groups - whoever they might be.
So, what does the speech tell us about Ed Miliband that we perhaps didn’t know before?
1. He wants to be his own man, but he doesn’t know who he is. He knows he isn’t Tony Blair, and his insistence on proclaiming this to conference brought unexpected and embarrassing cheers from some quarters. But Ed Miliband’s problem is that he doesn’t know who Ed Miliband is. He announced that he intends to “be true to myself...my instincts...my values” but it was difficult to establish what that meant in reality. He seemed particularly keen to distance himself from the previous Labour government of which he was part, effectively declaring war on the legacy he helped to create. Oddly for someone who is so keen to project his independence and individuality, there was more than a suggestion that he was playing to the gallery – notably one including trade unionists – in relation to his anti-business rhetoric, his populist statements on taxation and his views on the filthy rich (of whom John Hutton famously said he had no problem). For someone so keen to be “his own man” he failed to set a distinctive policy agenda or even a coherent set of personal ideas. Which begs the question: who is Ed Miliband other than a tribalistic oppositionalist?
2. He’s caught between two worlds. And two ways of thinking. He claims to be reaching out for “new values” but the indelible evidence points to a conviction that Miliband has rejected progressive social democracy and instead believes that Britain would welcome a government whose socialist agenda would undermine business and further damage the economy. As The Guardian’s Julian Glover points out, “not since 1974 has an election been won by a leader as leftwing as Miliband showed himself to be today. Or, to be cruel, Tony Benn’s got his party back”. Miliband essentially wishes to rebrand the same, tried left-wing remedies – a bit like New Labour but only less interesting. Martin Kettle, also writing in The Guardian, considered that the speech amounted to little more than “an eloquent restatement of the old-time religion”. Miliband desperately wants to make his party relevant to 21st century Britain and deliver a new, radical agenda. But, sadly, it was painfully obvious he has little idea how to do this without returning to the politics of the past. I have no doubt that he wants to bring fresh ideas to the political discourse but wasted the opportunity, being constrained by a retrograde philosophy from which he is unable or unwilling to detach himself.
3. He lacks humility and is either deluded about his personal record in government or determined to erase the memory of it. He was keen to distance himself from previous Labour leaders and, by implication, New Labour. As a tactic, this might make sense. As an intellectual stance it is unsustainable. More tellingly, while keen to play up the role of the innocent bystander swept along by events over which he had no control (this does not reflect positively in respect to his leadership capabilities) at no point did he acknowledge Labour’s culpability in creating the current crisis. How much more effective could his speech have been if he had admitted the more negative aspects of Labour’s legacy: the toxic economic inheritance, failure to reform the welfare system, insufficient delivery on the NHS and education, ill-conceived foreign policy, the attack on civil liberty or the excesses of big-business and the financial industry?
4. His rewriting of history in his own image speaks of personal insecurities. Deep insecurities. Is it simply the case that he can not face up to painful realities? Is he a cynical populist who is seeking to take advantage of his party’s disaffection with Blairism and its heritage? Or is he merely keen to move on from the past and look towards a new Labour future? The context and content of his speech suggests the last is unlikely. My own view is that he is, in some obsessive Orwellian-style way, attempting to recreate himself because not only is he uncomfortable with who he is but he is unable to accept himself and projects these feelings onto others. Whatever his reasoning, there can be no escape from the truth that Miliband is racked by fear of unions – unions whose support he both needs and dreads, whose power and influence he resents yet seeks to cultivate to secure his own political future. He knows he doesn't have the power to take the unions on - at least not yet - but realises he will have to if the party is to genuinely be reformed. I have sympathy with him – it’s enough to make you believe in conspiracy theories, jack it all in and take it easy in the Scilly Isles. It must be hard to formulate a political vision when you have limited control over and trust in those who pull the party strings. Miliband is racked by conflicting anxieties, which appear to have sapped his personal confidence and clarity of thought. Even his rather pitiful and juvenile attacks on Nick Clegg (imaginatively calling him a “Tory”) served no other purpose than a rather unconvincing mask for his own insecurity.
5. He’s an authoritarian to his core. How else can his determination to reinforce the division between the deserving and undeserving poor be interpreted? His announcement that social housing will be allocated on the basis of behaviour rather than need is electorally risky and socially irresponsible, not to mention discriminatory. The welfare system should favour the “responsible” he said. Aside from the obvious problems this approach will both cause and exacerbate, Miliband refused to announce how he intended to determine who was good and deserving and, conversely, who was bad and undeserving. What this announcement did demonstrate was Miliband’s inflexible thinking, his authoritarian worldview and the level to which he completely misunderstands the complex web of social problems at the heart of the matter – not least that making people homeless is not the best remedy for creating productive citizens.
6. His economic thinking is seriously deficient. He referred to the economy in terms of household budget analogies: “the Government believes Britain can address our problems of debt without addressing our problems of growth. They are wrong. Think of how you pay off the credit card bill. You need to make savings in the household budget. But if you lose your job and the money stops coming in, you can’t pay off the bill.” But as any A-level student knows, national economies are completely different from households so the comparison is a weak one. Miliband continued by suggesting that under New Labour, the “good times did not mean we had a good economic system. We changed the fabric of our country but we did not do enough to change the values of our economy.” Unfortunately this timely observation was not accompanied with any vision of a new economic structure but a succession of easy swipes at Sir Fred Goodwin, bankers more generally, energy companies and David Cameron. He clearly likes his pantomime villains far more than he does promoting a responsible economic alternative. Other than an unspecified commitment to change banks “so that they are part of the solution” he had very little to say.
As an apparent afterthought, he did mention the importance of low-carbon creative industries alongside a commitment to the environment and tackling climate change which required breaking the stranglehold of the large energy suppliers. You would have thought whoever was Labour’s Energy Secretary in the last government would have considered attending to that problem.
7. He is a mass of contradictions. Yes, the man who is favour of a graduate tax and opposed to any hike in university tuition fees simultaneously supports increasing fees to a level only double what the previous government had set. And this in spite of evidence suggesting the only beneficiaries to this back-of-an-envelope policy idea would be the highest earners. His speech was littered with other contradictions, most obviously his stance on Blairism which ranged from rejection to wholehearted approval and his confused perspectives on social issues which saw him berate the coalition government while advocating right-wing and authoritarian schemes for approving social housing tenants, utterly failing to appreciate that social housing is not in fact a handout but an integral and vital part of the housing economy as well as a key means of tackling a nyriad of social problems.
8. He craves approval, as the above contradictions make clear. Approval from within his own party (“look at me, I’m not Tony Blair!”), approval from the public (“see, those nasty rioters don’t deserve a council house”) and approval from the unions (“those evil bankers will be a thing of the past come the revolution!”). Perhaps this is because he is racked by self-doubt and lacks confidence in himself. It is, of course, not unusual for politicians to be populist. Ed Miliband’s problem is he’s trying to appeal to multiple groups at once – the inevitable result of what in the Labour Party passes for internal democracy.
9. He still doesn’t understand that attempting to score easy points by knocking the Liberal Democrats is counter-productive. Firstly, it makes him look like more of a tribalist than a statesman. But, more crucially, it shows he hasn’t learned the lessons from the Scottish experience, where Iain Gray’s obsession with the Liberal Democrats led to a transfer of Lib Dem votes...to the SNP. Admittedly Alex Salmond’s electoral influence should not transfer too far south of the border but Miliband should think carefully about wishing to contribute to Lib Dem woes (as both Kinnock and Thatcher did in the immediate aftermath of merger) given that for him to acquire a majority at the next election the Lib Dems will need to hold on to some key Lib-Con marginals. A Liberal Democrat meltdown would hardly aid the political ambitions of the Labour leader.
More tellingly, he has no appetite for working with the Liberal Democrats or even for establishing common ground between the two parties, despite the fact that this would represent a more serious attempt at undermining the coalition's prospects than painting the Lib Dems as "Tories". I can only wonder what Donald Dewar would make of this. Surely I am not the only Scot who valued the close working relationships in the past between Labour and the Lib Dems but clearly Miliband wants his party to move on from such pluralistic achievements and into a new era of tribalism.
10. He’s not an orator. In that sense he’s right that he isn’t Tony Blair. That may not necessarily be a bad thing: Clem Attlee, Edward Heath, John Major and Gordon Brown achieved the highest office while being neither inspirational nor charismatic. But while in the case of these the perceived decency of the men proved to be an asset (at least during the early part of their respective tenures) Miliband lacks such appeal and can be more easily compared to Michael Foot, a predecessor who will forever be remembered for his delusional conviction that Britain wanted to move radically leftwards. Miliband's oratory was the most nervous and least convincing party conference speech from a leader since Iain Duncan Smith decided it was a good idea to declare himself “the quiet man of politics” and a few more efforts like this could see calls for him to take a similar exit.
Miliband is a leader of limited ability and, judging by yesterday’s performance, even more limited political vision. There were, inevitably, some positives in his speech and a number of potentially useful ideas that will hopefully be explored in more depth in the months and years ahead. Unfortunately, what the speech suffered from most was identified by Miliband himself: “You need to know that there is an alternative. You need to know that it is credible”, he stated. Indeed. But credibility comes from a credible policy platform and a credible leader and currently Labour have neither. Labour desperately needs a leader who can look beyond the politics of opposition and take the party, wandering confused in the wilderness of the post-Blair/Brown era, into a new place flowing with purpose and vision.
Ed Miliband's internal conflicts are undeniable and rapidly undermining his leadership. The biggest problem Labour faces is Miliband’s determination to “be his own man...going to do things [his] way.” Not only because that man is contradictory, insecure, undecided and paralysed through fear but due to his crippling lack of any kind of appeal. Letting Ed be Ed, argues Daniel Finkelstein in The Times, is “poor strategic advice”. Indeed; it verges on the suicidal. Several Labour delegates were happy to tell the BBC that they were delighted with their leader’s speech but my suspicion is that nobody will be happier than David Cameron.