Ed Miliband confronts the vested interests in society and promises a new bargain for Britain
It was a bit disjointed in places. It contained the odd dig at Nick Clegg that added nothing to the overall theme and the pronouncement that he was not Tony Blair was surely not designed to instigate wild cheers amongst some delegates. Yet even a five minute blackout caused by a power cut couldn’t prevent Ed Miliband from offering up a bold, comprehensive evaluation of how the vested interests of big business, political elites and media barons have left us in a fragmented and deeply unequal society, and a slightly sketchier vision of how we might escape to a more prosperous and principled one.
One might argue that the diagnosis of the disease is the easy bit: whether it is in the fiddling of expenses, the hacking of phones of the deceased, or the reckless gambling of the bankers, nearly everyone in the country gets that the system is broken. The greed and corruption of those at the top of society have brought unconfined wealth to them, whilst the honest hard-working majority at the other end, waiting for the trickle-down theory of economics to kick-in, are finally coming to the realization that they wait in vain.
I say nearly everyone gets it, because of course there is no real sense that the Tories are in anyway interested in confronting the idea that the morals and economic guidance first instigated by Thatcher and Reagan are what have lead us down this route. As Miliband put it “Only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer.”
And with the Lib Dems unwilling or unable to front up to the Tories in any meaningful way, it is left to the Labour party to make the case that fundamental change is needed across society to roll back the power of vested interests over the public interest. And that is what Ed Miliband did today.
The speech addressed the need for responsibility and reform amongst all vested interests in society but it was to big businesses in particular that Miliband focused his attention. Though there was a compulsory bit of banker bashing included, in part no doubt just to give the audience an easy cheer line, Miliband was intent in addressing the whole of the business spectrum in arguing for reform in the way they operate. Energy companies were reprimanded for hiking up prices, asset-strippers were scolded for only being interested in making a “fast buck”, and company boards were relabelled “cosy cartels” for the way top pay is decided.
This all fits in with Miliband and his aide’s belief that there is genuinely an opportunity to restructure the economy in a way that is both more ethical and efficient. The era of neoliberalism is over in their eyes and Ed’s speech was an attempt to echo that sentiment in language that everyone can understand. Fears that Miliband already comes across as too much of a policy wonk meant terms like neoliberalism were never actually going to make it into the speech.
But exposing the pitfalls of free-market capitalism alone is not enough. It offers a chance for a clear paradigm shift and Ed recognises that but he still has to convince large portions of the country to follow him. And this is where he faces significant problems. He was right to identify in his speech that people abhor the salaries and bonuses Fred Goodwin took home whilst casually turning round the next moment to ask for billions of pounds of taxpayer’s money to bail out RBS. And he was also right that Fred should never have become Sir Fred and yet is was Labour who bestowed that honour on him: Labour under Blair and Brown were so keen to embrace deregulated markets, so “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich” that it is not easy for the public to embrace the idea that Labour under Miliband offers a clear break from the past nor that Miliband’s vision is necessarily the one to follow.
For those worried that Miliband’s vision represents a drift too far leftwards, the speech inevitably offered the occasional rebuttal to such suggestions. Ed’s suggestion that priority in social housing should be given to those who contribute most to their communities left Andy Burnham floundering when Andrew Neil asked him afterwards whether Labour were now seeking to distinguish between the deserving and undeserving poor. Moreover there was plenty of praise for the wealth creators in our country and, whisper it quietly, there was even the faintest of praise for some of Thatcher’s reforms in the 80’s.
But make no mistake, Ed does envision a society that moves leftwards, away from the perils of neoliberalism, which is not to place him in the same company as his Marxist dad. Ed has correctly diagnosed the disease; he even recognises what he would like his healthy, rehabilitated patient to look like. What remains is to provide the necessary medicine and to convince us its worth swallowing.
In other words he needs some policies, and in this regards some of the announcements on policies didn’t necessarily match up to his lofty rhetoric. The promise of at least one worker on company boards is a progressive step but is one worker alone likely to be able significantly alter the pay structure? We can all agree that the way Southern Cross acted was deplorable but is it really plausible to legislate against such behaviour? And capping tuition fees at £6,000 would not make Labour the party for young people.
Even if the policy announcements today didn’t always hit the right note though, Miliband has shown often enough throughout his first year that he is deadly serious in taking on and reforming the vested interest he so deplores, most notably when he took on the Murdoch Empire and emerged victorious. Some will argue that it is political suicide to take on such powerful institutions. It certainly isn’t something any politician has tried with any success in the past thirty years but then Ed believes the economic thinking of that era is finished. He may need to lay out with a little more clarity how he intends to lead us there, but Ed’s speech today made it very clear what his vision for Britain is.