Party conference season here in the United Kingdom has come and gone during the last few weeks; the Liberal Democrats kicked off in Birmingham, followed by Labour in Liverpool and the Conservatives in Manchester. There was much grumbling in the media about the cost of sending vast teams of correspondents north to cover the proceedings of each conference on site, amidst a general fuzz of indifference amongst the general public. The raison d’etre of the “party conference” is after all, under siege in the modern era: today’s mass political party does not tolerate serious debate or disagreement. The energy of conference instead tends to be expended on stage-managed set pieces and the gormless totting-out of phrases crafted by snake oil merchants and wet-eared graduates untouched by the realities of modern working life. The appearance of Hugh Grant at all three conferences – despite his very good anti-tabloid journalism motivations – says something a little too poetic about that.
Amongst the liberal media, there was a clear expectation that Ed Miliband needed to “punch through” with his conference speech (video | transcript) in order for Labour to reassert itself as a credible force in Opposition. The Conservative/Lib Dem coalition government has made enemies across the country in the last year and a half, paying lip service to David Cameron’s “Big Society” whilst forcing draconian spending cuts on the public sector and local councils, strangling charities and hoping inanely for the private sector to storm into gear and lift the economy from the doldrums. Labour should be doing splendidly under these conditions, but at best, it is only doing satisfactorily.
There is an endless array of reasonable explanations for Labour’s current woes, from the “honeymoon effect” currently still enjoyed by the Conservative / Lib Dem Coalition, to the sprawling five year terms that bequeath UK governments the luxury of time to plan and deliver, but oppositions only early-term echo chambers that are un-fillable with policy. At some point, of course, it is the leader of the party who must ultimately take responsibility for their party’s performance, and the vultures, if not exactly circling Ed Miliband, have at least spotted him looking a bit bedraggled on the horizon.
Miliband’s conference speech this year was, in a couple of parts, very good. The “quiet crisis” narrative that he wheeled out, quite accurately describes the biggest problem facing modern capitalism in affluent societies:
But you know there’s a quiet crisis which doesn’t get the headlines. It’s about the people who don’t make a fuss, who don’t hack phones, loot shops, fiddle their expenses, or earn telephone number salaries at the banks. It’s the grafters, the hard-working majority who do the right thing. It’s a crisis which is happening in your town, your street and maybe even in your home. It is a crisis of the promises made over the last thirty years. The promise that if you’re in work, you will do better each year.
The promise that if you work hard at school the doors of opportunity will open up to you. The promise that if you teach your kids the difference between right and wrong and bring them up properly, they will get a good job, and a decent home. These crises point to something deep in our country. The failure of a system.A way of doing things. An old set of rules.
Instinctively, most of us living in relative but perhaps not absolute comfort in places like Australia can relate to this. The promise of modern capitalism – the social bargain – is that if you do well in school and work hard, you can make a comfortable life for yourself and your family. It is a bargain that promises much to all, but today, only delivers to some. Today, we all know of people who are brilliant at their jobs –educators, nurses, police officers, people working a trade – who don’t get out of society what they put in. We all know of people who are doing the best they can in life, but for whom buying a home in their hometown necessitates either dumb luck, a large inheritance, 80 hours a week in a “profession”, unscrupulous activity, or a combination thereof. Movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the recent housing crisis protests in Israel seem to be manifestations of this broader system problem, that most political parties and vested interests are predisposed to ignore.
In other parts, the speech was ill-judged. Very, very little was offered by Miliband on the policy front, with one of the few policy snippets offered tanking particularly badly; a limp pledge to reduce university fees from a maximum of £9000 to £6000 a year. Good luck marshalling emotional fervour amongst the student population for Labour’s cause with that pledge! Former RBS chief Fred Goodwin was personally hoisted up once again as a kind of political piñata, and thrashed about in a way unbecoming a prospective national leader. Miliband’s characterisation of himself as an “outsider” trying to shake the tree of the “insiders” had some promise, but come out sounding a bit grandiose, as his speechwriters tried desperately to connect who their man is with who and what he is fighting against:
What’s my story? My parents fled the Nazis. And came to Britain. They embraced its values. Outsiders. Who built a life for us. So this is who I am. The heritage of the outsider. The vantage point of the insider. The guy who is determined to break the closed circles of Britain.
But perhaps the clincher, at least for me? Listening to Ed Miliband read a conference speech is like listening to an excited prefect with a headcold hold court at school assembly. It sounds shallow (and is), but this is democracy in 2011, and your ability to capture and hold an audience matters. Even if Labour’s leader manages to orchestrate some good policy formulation with his team over the next 12 to 24 months, it is very difficult to see him punching through and connecting with ordinary voters.
At least for the time being, under “Red Ed”, Labour are pinning their hopes on the Eurozone crisis and fiscal bloody-mindedness of the Tories running the economy into the ground. They’re not going to win on their own merit at this rate.