Labour Party Fails To Find Its Soul In Manchester

 

The 2014 Labour Party conference may be a rapidly receding memory, brushed aside in the news cycle by UKIP’s conference and Parliament’s vote to authorise military action in Iraq (again) – but it will take months for the stench of misplaced smugness, moral superiority and directionless, crusading fervour left in Labour’s wake to fully dissipate from the Manchester Central Convention Complex.

The bland, ambitious, vaguely telegenic personalities were the same.

The toe-curlingly bad speeches were the same.

The policy announcements (where they existed) were the same.

The delegates milled around, congratulating themselves for being the only ones in Britain who care about the poor, the weak and the vulnerable. So much the same.

They called themselves “brother” and “sister”, and talked about “solidarity” as though they were still engaged in some kind of real, urgent, principled struggle.

But it was all an act.

Today’s Labour Party, increasingly under the New Labour era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – and now reaching its dismal nadir under Ed Miliband – is nothing but an orchestrated pretence, an amateur dramatic society production of Labour’s Glory Days, with Ed Miliband playing the part of Clement Attlee and introducing Andy Burnham, in his first dramatic role, as Nye Bevan.

Those delegates at the Manchester conference who still stand for revolutionary left wing ideals instantly squandered their hard-won credibility when they stood and cheered for the lacklustre, centrist drivel cheekily offered up as an agenda for government by the power-hungry, conviction-lacking shadow cabinet members as they took turns to speak.

When the leader finally stood up to talk (maybe notes would have been helpful – he might have remembered to mention the economy) he managed to say absolutely nothing. The most that the conference hall and the wider country was able to glean about his ambition for the country was a cryptic list of six goals that he would quite like to achieve, not within one Parliament but over ten whole years.

Here are the six, taken directly from the official transcript of his speech:

We [will] halve the number of people in low pay by 2025. Transforming the lives of two million people in our country.

Your blogger was sitting in a waiting room as coverage of Ed Miliband’s conference speech was reported on the evening news. The rest of the audience in the room consisted primarily of low paid carers, working at or near minimum wage – supposedly the kind of people that the Labour leader was trying to reach. Here are some of their (verbatim) reactions:

“What an arsehole.”

“He’s such an arsehole.”

“What a complete and utter arsehole. He hasn’t got a clue.”

“What planet is he living on?”

“What’s the point of voting for that? It’s no different than the other lot.”

“What the hell good will £8 an hour do me in 2020? That’s six years away, and prices are going up all the time!”

Quite.

All working people should share fairly in the growing wealth of the country. That means, as the economy grows, the wages of everyday working people grow at the same rate.

Miliband then wittered on for paragraph after paragraph without explaining how this goal would be achieved without draconian price or wage controls, or an even more redistributive tax system. A literal reading of this pronouncement would also imply a 100% marginal tax rate on Britain’s most financially successful people (how else to ensure that the poorest “shared fairly”), leading to an immediate brain drain and exodus of talent and capital.

By 2025, Britain becomes truly a world leader in the green economy, creating one million new jobs as we do.

This is a certainly a worthy goal, and Ed Miliband was right to criticise the increasing climate denialism within the ranks of the Conservative Party and UKIP. But then Ed got sidetracked (a natural hazard when delivering a speech from memory) and started talking about jobs and wages, without giving any concrete steps to help Britain become a world leader in green technology aside from the creation of a “Green Investment Bank”.

By 2025 as many young people will be leaving school or college to go on to an apprenticeship as currently go to university.

Again, the idea of more apprenticeships is good – more exciting, rewarding career opportunities are needed for young people who do not necessarily want to follow the academic route of university. And Ed Miliband is right to state that this will require a “massive national effort”.

But with Labour’s track record of caving to the teaching unions in their resistance to change and antagonising businesses of every size with new unfunded mandates, it is difficult to see how Miliband’s party is best placed to bring about this revolution, and the needed partnerships between business and educational establishments.

By 2025, for the first time in fifty years, this country will be building as many homes as we need. Doubling the number of first time buyers in our country.

What if we started building as many houses we need right now, in the year 2014? What if we steamrollered over the entrenched special interests (politicians and taxpayers of all political leanings) who profit from the status quo, where house prices are forced up and up through lack of supply, condemning future generations to a life of tenancy and money thrown away in rent to help make the landlord class even wealthier?

Create a truly world-class 21st century health and care service.

Ed Miliband correctly identifies many of the problems with today’s NHS. But he then asks us to suspend our reason and accept his sunny assertion that this can all be fixed with little or no effort, and at no cost to the “ordinary taxpayer”.

Instead, wholesale reform of the National Health Service (the kind that would be called “dangerous experimentation” were it to be carried out by a Tory government) can be achieved without extra borrowing, simply by closing tax loopholes and instituting a mansion tax. Except that those money-raising measures have already been committed to fund other Labour initiatives.

And that was it.

Since when did any of these six announcements – wavering as they do on the scale between “slightly dim” and “common sense” – amount to a radical new programme for government?

But it wasn’t just Ed Miliband who failed to deliver.

Speaker after speaker droned on about the need for radical policies. Fair enough. The Labour Party was born of radicalism, and can lay claim to many of the radical policies that have shaped modern Britain – most notably the welfare state and the NHS.

But since when did tweaking the tax code, promising to build houses that will never be built and insulting conservatives with every other word count as radical plans worthy of the Labour Party?

Radical would have been to embrace the concept of universal basic income, most recently endorsed by The Citizen’s Income Trust and cautiously supported by this blog.

Radical would have been to announce an immediate housebuilding programme, with private and publicly-owned house building outstripping demand year on year until home ownership becomes a realistic prospect for every British citizen.

Radical would have been to admit that a £2 billion bandage is not enough to cure our nationalised healthcare system, and that (much as it contravenes this blogger’s political beliefs) if we do want to continue with publicly-owned, publicly-funded healthcare in an age of expensive new medical technologies and greater longevity, we need to massively increase (or divert) taxes to pay for it.

But there was no radicalism this year in Manchester.

An email from Andy Burnham popped into my inbox the other day, shortly following Ed Miliband’s speech. It was entitled “My childhood was not an episode from Downton Abbey”.

The email recounts a speech given to the Labour Party conference by Harry Leslie Smith, a 91-year-old military veteran who had been successfully tricked by Labour’s spin machine that the National Health Service and public healthcare is but one election away from being permanently dismantled.

Mr. Stiles warned:

Today, we must be vigilant. We must be vocal. We must demand that the NHS will always remain an institution for the people and by the people.

We must never ever let the NHS free from our grasp because if we do your future will be my past. So I want to say loudly and clearly: Mr Cameron, keep your mitts off my NHS.

Leave aside the risible elevation of the NHS as an institution on par with the United States government (“of the people, by the people, for the people”) for a time – Mr. Stiles’ sentiment is heartfelt. But it is also misplaced.

No one has proposed abolishing the NHS, or in any way tampering with the concept of healthcare free at the point of use in Britain. Neither is there any appetite to do so within either the Tory party or UKIP’s increasingly broad coalition.

Shame on Ed Miliband and his vacuous Labour Party for going around scaring elderly voters and conjuring false visions of a return to the days before universal healthcare.

And yet the Labour Party succeeds in peddling this dirty myth unchallenged. But then what else can they do? Apparently Labour used up all of their radicalism in the years 1945-50 and forgot to replenish their reserves, forcing activists to continue to talk the same strident language of socialism and enforced equality while proposing no new ideas to push Britain toward their preferred destination.

Not that their destination is the correct one for Britain, anyway.

Labour solutions such as the minimum wage, government-owned everything, punitive taxation, positive discrimination and hiring quotas for every conceivable minority are like a temporary bandage, a stop-gap solution. Once you take away the regulation, the situation – driven by human behaviour and prejudices – will inevitably return to its normal, often inequitable steady-state.

Moreover, these policies are the ultimate expression of the left-wing view of humanity, which is that mankind is for the most part inherently bad, and requires continual oversight, guidance and correction by an enlightened, progressive elite – whose position left-wingers are more than happy to fill.

What Britain – and most of the world – really needs is not coercive paternalism from on high, but rather prudent interventions in the free market to help it function more perfectly, recognising risk, potential and value in a more holistic way.

If Ed Miliband’s feeble plan comes to fruition and the minimum wage rises – by the year 2020 – to £8 per hour for someone like a hardworking healthcare assistant who cares round the clock for our elderly loved ones suffering with dementia, that’s a start. A pitifully small start in the right direction.

But how much better would it be if the consciousness of the free market expanded to value such vital jobs not just according to the financial value they create – a competition which the carers will always lose and “the bankers” always win – but also according to the huge amount of social and human good that they provide?

Sure, it won’t be easy. The left’s impulse is toward price and wage controls, heavily redistributive taxation or state ownership of everything, while the right’s is to ignore social and environmental externalities altogether, be they positive or negative.

In Andy Burnham’s shameful, exploitative, scaremongering email, he quoted 91-year-old Harry Leslie Smith again. The veteran recalled:

In 1945, at the age of 22, still in the RAF after a long hard Great Depression and a savage and brutal war, I voted for the first time.

Election Day 1945 was one of the proudest days in my life. I felt that I was finally getting a chance to grab destiny by the shirt collar and that is why I voted for Labour and for the creation of the NHS.

The lesson from these words, which Labour clearly failed to learn despite exploiting them for political purposes, is this: if you dare mighty things, if you identify a common problem and propose a bold political solution, people will stand up and vote for it in their millions.

There is now an opening for a political party to pick up the torch and present a new manifesto for Britain that could at least attempt to achieve the social justice we all want, not through heavy-handed state control but through the free market, uniting left and right under a shared purpose.

Ed Miliband’s Labour Party ducked the challenge in Manchester this week.

Who will take it up instead?

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