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A powerful, forward-thinking speech: but ‘One Nation’?

From the day of the speech – originally published on Left Futures. A shorter version was printed in Campaign Briefing, Wednesday 3rd October, at Labour party conference.

Ed Miliband’s speech today is certainly his finest – and the finest Labour has seen in some time.

Ed’s leadership is always in need of pressure – and constructive criticism – from the left of the party. But sometimes we can forget that Labour has its most left-wing leadership in 18 years. That’s why criticism of Ed from the left can be irritating too – when his critics speak as if they are about to abandon the Labour party, even if they were perfectly happy to carry on regardless under Blair.

As Ed began his speech, he was evidently more comfortable, and natural, then he was either last year or the year before. But he was still hesitant – he stumbled once or twice. He repeated several fragments when he was interrupted by delegates’ applause – and when watching on screen, when the applause is not as prominent, this might unnecessary. Still, kudos to Ed for recognising that Labour party conference is not just about publicity, and that there is also a need to show delegates some respect. Perhaps conference chair Michael Cashman could learn a few lessons from Ed in this area.

 With these first hesitations I began to feel that perhaps doing a speech ‘from the heart’ – as the BBC and Twitter billed it beforehand – wasn’t such a good idea after all. At moments it looked like it could go anywhere. Everyone commenting on Twitter seemed to think it was a success from the beginning, but there was a need to be more cautious than that. The opening jokes were decent and natural, but they weren’t the standard introduction to a speech as powerful as that.

But in the event, the power of the speech and the spontaneity of the first half fitted together perfectly. Tony Blair had the gift of being able to pass off something totally vacuous as profound – and he did so through the power of oratory; through a façade of the natural. With Ed, it is genuinely natural – “very Ed”, as a member of his team briefed the BBC in advance. And the speech included rhetoric that re-affirmed Ed’s welcome departure from the doctrine of New Labour.

While there was little in the way of policy announcements, it is important that Ed still sees Labour as the party to take on vested interests in our society. The “siren voices” of the Blairites (as referred to by Len McCluskey the other day) would have liked to see him ditch this sort of talk long ago. It was this that led him to express sympathies with the Occupy movement, condemned in an editorial of Blairite party-within-a-party Progress. The same spirit saw him take on Rupert Murdoch, in what was arguably his most successful campaign as opposition leader.

Yet the prime focus on the paper is likely to be the two words the leader’s office evidently wanted to jar: “one nation”. This Tory-led government, Ed seeks to assert, is more disconnected from ordinary people than any of its (Tory) predecessors for a long time. This thrust was also seen when he highlighted that Tory Britain re-distributes money from pensioners to the super-rich.

This is also undoubtedly an improvement from the New Labour days, when apparently we were “intensely relaxed” (the oxymoron shows how unnatural such a position is for the Labour party) about people getting “filthy rich”. Ed evidently thinks this chimes with the “Spirit Level” thinking he espoused earlier in the week, when once again he affirmed that income inequality was a real problem. This might seem obvious in the days since the Wilkinson and Pickett evidence was published, but David Cameron has shimmied away from it (of course) and under New Labour, the best we got was attempting to lift people out of poverty, as opposed to reducing the gap between the rich and the poor.

Nonetheless, we can’t simply accept “one nation” as a concept we endorse without review. One nation could, if we defined it as such, affirmatively mean justice for the poor, an end to tax loopholes for the rich, free university education… all sorts of things that a Labour government could do to promote equality. Yet if we simply take it as it has previously been defined, it is a Tory term. Looking back to Disraeli, it is arguably a justification to the wealthy for measures to support society – not on the basis of society being important, but to prevent the poor from revolting.

Of course, Labour should not be promoting armed rebellion, but nor should we allow anyone to think that our “one nationism” is about throwing crumbs to keep the status quo. Labour is currently in danger of becoming the party of a warm blanket and a cup of tea, a friend recently said to me. This is the opposite message to taking on vested interests and re-building a fair society.

Warren Buffett, that bastion of Marxism, recently commented: “It’s class war: and my class is winning.” Our mission, as a wise man once said, is not to start the class war, but to end it. Ed proved in this strong and natural speech that he can lead Labour to build a just society in government. But if he does not firmly re-define the term “one nation”, it could undermine the potential to place Labour as the radical, forward-thinking party in the view of the electorate.

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