Today’s events, far more so than the weekend’s unimpressive election results and murmurings of panic-tinged dissent from the shadow cabinet, represent a low point for Ed Miliband, the Labour Party and for left-wing thinking in Britain.
For today was the day when, irritated by yet another press question about his continuing inability to connect with voters and asked to sum up his political outlook and ambition in a single word, Ed Miliband offered two words instead, and inadvertently revealed the yawning gulf where ideas, policies and conviction should be sparking together with a general election less than a year away.
Responding to a perfectly innocuous – yet increasingly urgent – question that can be effectively paraphrased as “What makes you tick, and why should anyone vote Labour in 2015 and install you as Prime Minister?”, Ed Miliband’s response had all the resonance of a broken drum (ruptured through repeated banging):
In other words, Ed Miliband’s all-singing, all-dancing pitch to the electorate was this incisive, eternally quotable piece of oratory:
“One Nation. One Nation is an idea about how you bring every person in the country to make their contribution, and how you can change Britain. And that’s what I’m about. And that’s what I’m about for Britain. And I think it shows that Labour is a party that is reaching out to people across our country, and that Labour has the answers. But in the end, the question is does our country succeed with a few people at the top doing well, or does it succeed when actually ordinary people are supported? And that is the big question for Britain. And actually I believe that will be the big question for Britain in the next eleven months.”
One Nation. Forget the dull repetition of meaningless phrases that makes Ed Miliband sound like a skipping record. Forget the petulant innumeracy of his answer. This wasted opportunity to stake out a purpose, a reason for his leadership of the Labour Party, belies a more serious deficit – an intellectual deficit making its disturbing presence felt within the highest ranks of the Labour Party and the left-wing opposition in general.
Ed Miliband managed to speak one hundred and fourteen words without saying anything at all, but let us go line-by-line anyway:
“Bringing every person in the country to make their contribution”. Okay, so there are shades of JFK’s “Ask Not” inaugural address – albeit JFK on a heavy dose of Valium and sleeping pills – in what Ed is saying here. But the idea of drawing on patriotic or civic duty to contribute is squashed no sooner than it is suggested, as Miliband reverts to classic Labour language about what people can expect to get out of their government (“succeed when actually ordinary people are supported”).
“Labour is a party that is reaching out to people across our country”. All the people, that is, except for those who voted UKIP in last week’s election, who are viewed by the party as either out-and-out racists or gullible fools who were seduced by Nigel Farage’s party and need to be shouted at increasingly loudly until they come to see the error of their ways. Dan Hodges was right to warn that Labour is retreating toward an unwinnable 35% per cent strategy.
“Does our country succeed with a few people at the top doing well?”. The question is rhetorical and the answer obvious, but what Labour intends to do remains unexplored. Is this all about income redistribution, or soak-the-rich taxes that punish high earners regardless of the net effect on the Treasury? Are we closer to the ideal of “One Nation” if we slide back into recession but manage to reduce the inequality gap on our descent down the ranks of economic powers, or has Ed Miliband outsmarted Thomas Piketty and stumbled upon a way for those who earn a living selling their labour to catch up with the capital-owners while growing the economy as a whole?
And that’s it. A request for a one-word answer spawned a two-word brand name, an incomprehensible definition by way of follow-up and more questions than Ed Miliband seems likely to answer between now and election day 2015.
The concern is not that this complete lack of original ideas or strongly-held convictions will necessarily damage Labour in the 2015 general election campaign. Rather, the growing fear must be that Labour could be returned to power despite this ideological and policy vacuum where ideas and core beliefs are supposed to reside.
Sure, there will be a manifesto written, launched with great fanfare and disseminated for all to see, resplendent with glossy pictures and catchy quotes. No doubt it will have a seemingly-profound title: “One Nation”? “Making Your Contribution”? “Reaching Out Across Britain”? All of the key words and hackneyed phrases from Ed Miliband’s response today will have their place.
But what is the next level of detail? How will Labour, under Ed Miliband’s leadership, actually enable everyone to make ‘their contribution’ (and overcome any obstacles to doing so which currently stand in their way), ‘support’ ordinary people and reach out to those who are no longer politically engaged?
Politicians can talk all they like about the inspirational stuff – though apparently Ed Miliband cannot even do this with any degree of competence – but at some point they have to come down to Earth and get specific. The big picture has to be broken down into achievable segments, each supported by their own policies – tax cuts, spending increases, organisational change, diplomatic manoeuvres, whatever the case may be. And in turn, these various policies and initiatives have to be coherent and link back to the high-level stuff clearly and unambiguously.
The real danger with Ed Miliband’s “One Nation” gamble is that it is so vague as to be essentially useless – it does not naturally inspire any real tangible policies that could bring it about, and likewise any policies ultimately announced by Labour will be difficult to link back to the overarching message.
Basically, it’s the Big Society on steroids. Or rather, more Valium.
But at least David Cameron’s Big Society, if not wildly popular and ultimately discarded, was a coherent idea. David Cameron could stand in front of a Big Society poster and talk about the need for government retrenchment at a time of economic recession and budget deficits, and the consequent impetus for civil society, once unburdened of awkward regulations and red tape, to step into the breach and pick up the slack. None of these things ever actually happened, which only goes to show that even a well supported, easily explainable governing philosophy does not guarantee success – but it was a start, something to prevent David Cameron’s segments of the 2010 television debates being filled with awkward dead air.
Ed Miliband does not even have this security blanket. His big idea doesn’t mean anything, and can’t be explained without sending a room full of prospective voters from Essex to sleep. No one expects a full manifesto at this early stage, but where Labour does have policies (or people working on policies), too often they are pulling in opposing directions, as Dan Hodges points out:
Labour has never really had a core political strategy in the classic sense of the word. Instead, half a dozen disparate strategies have been allowed to evolve, all of them pulling in mutually destructive directions.
John Cruddas, Miliband’s policy guru, is working on a classic Blue Labour policy agenda, designed to reach out to soft Tories. At the same time his leader is pursuing a bright yellow metropolitan liberal agenda, one that aligns most closely with his personal liberal metropolitan worldview.
Bashing the evil Tories and their stupid Liberal Democrat sidekicks may have worked for the first few years of the coalition government – indeed, shouting about the heartless Conservatives and stoking up some old-fashioned class warfare helped Ed Miliband to steady the ship as Labour adjusted to life in opposition for the first time in thirteen years.
But at some point you have to present an alternative. And even if you’re not quite ready to come out with the details of your alternative offering to the electorate one year out from the general election, people shouldn’t be left grasping at straws for the first hint of what you want to do.
What does “One Nation” mean? At the moment – absolutely nothing. Which actually makes it the perfect slogan for the Labour Party under Ed Miliband.