Getting the answers Right
It’s a little unfair for colleagues in the Conservative commentariat to demand too many answers from Ed Miliband. The refrain at Labour conference, repeated in paper and journal after paper and journal, is that he must show who he is by explaining what he will do. But that isn’t really the job of the opposition, nor is it really a terribly sensible strategic maneuver. After all, Ed Balls is surely right to opine that he doesn’t know where the state’s finances will be in a year, let alone in four. What’s more, now is simply not an attractive time to be developing policy. Trust me, it’s far more fun think tanking and policy wonking when Government money is a given than when reduced spending is a must. No, Miliband didn’t need to lay out a programme for Government today but he did need to explain an ethos, a sentiment about Britain.
And, frankly, he almost did. Ed’s speech was a paean to small-c conservatism. Just as his acknowledgment of the pain that Labour’s immigration policies (or, bluntly, their lack of) inflicted was a statement of alignment with the Glasman/Goodhart nexus of the post-Islington Left, so too was his conference keynote. He talked of ‘responsibility’, of ending the culture of smash-and-grab (both for bankers and for rioters) and he called for a moral system of regulation and tax that deals with companies on the basis of who they are and what they do rather than through the blunt force of universal oversight.
All of which should give Labour supporters some hope. Because Miliband’s speech shows that he knows where the centre-ground is and that he isn’t, really, making the classic political mistake of assuming it’s wherever he happens to be. The truth is that Ed Miliband is an old-fashioned, social democrat as heart. His knee-jerk reaction to most questions of policy is to ask what Government can do. His assumptions and his prejudices are very much those of the Islington kind – socialism with pink champagne. But he knows, in his heart, that this will not win him an election, that the British public is tired and outraged by that brand of politics, that David Cameron and his project have not just transformed the Conservative Party but transformed British politics.
I spoke at a fringe event yesterday with Hazel Blears – a flame-headed whirlwind of rage against all that Brown did both to her party and to her country. She talked about the Big Society (if not in name) with a level of passion and honest belief comparable only, really, to Cameron himself. And her challenge to the Labour movement was clear – that they need to silence their Fabian statists with the same vigour with which the Tories have silenced our libertarian Right. For her there is no future in the technocratic managerialism that came to define Labour politics – Blears, it seems, wants to rock the boat further. And Ed is clearly listening, because his speech today – for all that a conservative such as myself can find to disagree with – was a statement of conservative intent.
Of course, it’s all easier said than done. And over the next four years – as Miliband does finally begin to develop policies to flesh out his agenda – the temptation will be to back away from the shiny, communitarian baubles he offered at conference. To retreat, instead, into the safe territory of the ‘progressive majority’ and resume preaching to that small choir who voted for AV and think immigration’s great because it’s brought down the cost of hiring a cleaner. But, so far, the signs are good. Against his own worst instincts, Ed Miliband is reaching cautiously for the Right answers.