Like it or not, love him or loathe him, David Cameron has proved himself to be a competent and capable leader in his first year in Number 10. He has shown himself to be easily the most adaptable Prime Minister of the 21st century and perhaps the most versatile and formidable party leader too. He has embraced the unique hurdles and challenges of coalition government to at once deliver radical policy his party believes in and please the electorate. He has vowed not to make the mistake of Tony Blair’s early years, in which political capital went unspent. He’s taken a blitzkrieg approach to numerous important issues and departments, somehow taking most of the country with him through a combination of confidence and yellow human shields.
Ed Miliband on the other hand, has been constantly under fire from both the media and Britain as a whole, and his own party. His leadership is generally, and not unjustifiably, characterised as ineffectual and inactive. He has more often than not chosen to stand by and do nothing but protest vocally at government plans. He has claimed to be the voice of Britain’s ordinary people and its “progressive majority”. His critics say that this majority doesn’t exist and even those that think it might, recognise that it has to be earned and forged from blood, sweat, tears and most crucially of all, policy.
Labour under Ed Miliband has produced almost no policy. His supporters and aides will argue that he’s been focusing on healing Labour’s image, bruised and battered by thirteen years of controversial government. But there has been no clear rebranding or change of direction either. The publication of elder brother David’s would-be acceptance speech last week highlighted just how much more Ed could have done from the start. I was critical of David’s lazy leadership campaign and even praised Ed’s more concrete vision. Looking at David Miliband’s speech though, it’s hard to argue with those who say he would be doing better as leader right now.
The speech sets out the deficit as Britain’s key political argument. It simultaneously does more to defend Labour’s record in government and admit its mistakes than Ed has done. It systematically addresses key areas with attractive focus; Ed’s speech tended to waffle more generally, focusing on alerting the world to the fact that he was an alright sort of guy. Well now we all want to know what he’s going to do to prove it.
To make things worse for the victorious Miliband, his shadow cabinet has hardly had time to settle. Alan Johnson didn’t last long as Shadow Chancellor. There has already been more than one reshuffle. Ed Balls, finally in the role he has craved for so long, is Labour’s only ray of activity. Last week he announced the one concrete policy they have in opposition; increase the bonus tax on bankers. Balls intends to gather support from rebellious Lib Dem and even Conservative MPs to push a Bill through Parliament that would take more money from the banks to fund employment schemes for the young and house building projects; to stop the rot on growth.
Now it’s obvious that one of Miliband’s weak points has been his inability to do much else besides bash the banks. Credible Prime Ministers cannot afford to make such powerful enemies or be defined by the one headline grabbing policy. But the plans of his money man Ed Balls are exactly the type of thing Labour should be doing more of. The government’s refusal to invest in the economy or change course on its programme of cuts is doing lasting damage. Labour cannot afford to just talk about this. They should hit the coalition where it hurts; by acting to safeguard the national interest it claims to be working for.
And Miliband could go further. He could say that a Labour government would not just build homes for struggling first time buyers but insist that they are all green. Labour needs a new stamp that marks out policy as theirs, which goes further than simply investment vs. cuts. As David Miliband set out, Labour has to acknowledge that it will tackle the deficit; the question is how will it do it differently?
Ed should make it abundantly clear that he is proposing policies for consideration now, intending to pass them now because to act too late would let the state of the economy and the government’s initiatives do irreparable harm. More house building would kick start the construction industry; more homes would get the property markets moving and add stability to a fragile, slow recovery.
Miliband has continually fallen back on the fact that the party in opposition traditionally keeps its cards close to its chest until an election. People should not be expecting him to be outlining detailed policy now, he says. I defended criticisms of him early on by using the argument that he shouldn’t rush through thinking about such important issues. But he has had time now. He must have some ideas. And he needs to start sharing them.
This is not an ordinary government. The coalition can be stalled, halted and persuaded on almost any issue. Parliament is not a sea of blue and carefully selected opposition proposals could become law. The NHS “listening exercise” and the rethink of Ken Clarke’s justice reform are examples from the past week alone where Cameron has been swayed enough to track back. Ed Miliband needs to do something bold to win the respect of voters. Disclosing genuine alternatives in full and frank detail will show that Labour care enough to act in the country’s interest, not their own.
I write just hours after both leaders in the contest for the nation’s political affections made important speeches on policy. As is the trend of late, it was David Cameron’s that made the greater impact. Speaking to a meeting in London of a foundation called GAVI, backed by Bill Gates, which provides vaccines for the world’s poor, the Prime Minister would have won over voters usually hostile to all things Tory.
His detoxification of his party has been enormously successful and pledging £814 million (the biggest donation of any nation) to an effective charity, goes a long way to satisfying his own voters, thanks to a clear strategy, and others in the electorate. With one speech Cameron scored moral points as well as talking convincingly about finding a clear foreign policy role for Britain based on duty, encouraging private sector growth and stable, democratic government.
Miliband’s speech was also important. It aimed to win back the agenda of community from Cameron, who has dominated the thinking of voters even with his unsuccessful Big Society idea. Miliband talked of responsibility and made surprisingly tough statements about those who didn’t give back not receiving welfare support. There were strong strains of the Blue Labour ideology Miliband recently endorsed, which focuses on democracy and accountability at the grass roots. It was about the overall narrative direction of Miliband’s leadership and designed to answer critics.
However whilst it’s important Miliband finds a stronger and more defined guiding vision for his party, action is what the public wants from him now. For an opposition leader options are limited, so action essentially means policy announcements. The Labour leader needs to be braver and take some gambles with his leadership, to both win over the country and protect it. No one will reward him for waiting until the election.
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David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Birmingham yesterday was an accomplished rallying cry and an impassioned response to his critics. Of all the party leader’s speeches during this conference season there is no doubt that Cameron’s was the most polished and technically the best. He stood out as a Prime Minister and appeared like a leader, completing a transformation from head of the Opposition to the most experienced politician in Britain. He sought to counter Ed Miliband’s claim that Labour were the optimists now with his own stirring note of idealism. However in doing so he once again missed an opportunity to spell out his message clearly to the country, opting instead for reams of empty rhetoric that made excellent sound bites but often contradicted each other.
Most strikingly Cameron again tried to explain what he meant by the “Big Society” and again failed catastrophically to render it a reality accessible to voters. In his haste to counter the new Labour leader’s charge of pessimism, Cameron swung dangerously into the realms of wild over optimism. In the speech he simultaneously claimed that his coalition government was both realistic about what it could achieve in power and optimistic about what government could achieve in partnership with the people. In principle this all sounds lovely of course. Of course government should concede it cannot solve everything by decree and ask cooperation from its people, whilst also setting high standards of achievement. In reality though Cameron has no credible claim to the titles of both realist and optimist. He must choose one or the other to define his leadership. He let the tone of his speech tip into an unrealistic optimism, probably due to that desire to stop the Labour revolution in its tracks. He blasted the “cynics” who would pour scorn on his “Big Society” rhetoric and indeed it was a clever ploy from the Prime Minister to call on the people to come to the aid of the nation, with grand, fluffy, empty rhetoric, and offer nothing concrete. Those who criticise Cameron’s speech for its lack of substance will be easily labelled as non-believers, as statists who do not trust the brilliance of the British people. Cameron therefore tried to lay a trap for opponents of the “Big Society”. But there is a reason I continue to put the “Big Society” in inverted commas, and it’s the same reason voters and indeed Conservatives distrust the policy; good idea in principle, but it’ll never work in practice.
Again Cameron failed to articulate what the “Big Society” would actually mean in terms of government policy, besides him praising voluntary organisations in speeches and urging everyone to go out and get involved. Rhetoric and the lifting of restrictions alone will not drastically change people’s behaviour and therefore the country. The kind of society Cameron claims to want, one that rewards contribution and discourages excessive consumption, simply cannot happen without at least some prompting by central government. It is also confusing that Cameron should place such an emphasis on contribution and consumption, areas that would be better suited to alterations in tax policy, when his government has vowed to tackle the deficit predominantly through spending cuts. On the other hand Cameron did make it clear he wanted a state that was better run, more powerful and within the means of government. Again this is sensible in principle, but shockingly for a government claiming to be the “greenest ever”, Cameron simply refused to utter the word “sustainability”.
To have made sustainability a key theme of the speech would have given it greater direction and purpose and clarity. It should also be made a more important plank of his government’s policy agenda. At the moment it is an area that lies wide open for Ed Miliband’s “new generation” to seize upon and exploit. Cameron’s deficit slashing philosophy, he was at pains to point out, was not simply ideological but a necessity. However the public is already convinced that the cuts, whichever party implements them, will be in some way driven by that party’s ideology. An ideology containing the idea of sustainability would be far easier to justify than the abstract notion of the “Big Society”.
Cameron also hinted at a promise that after the pain there will be rewards. He should have placed much greater emphasis on his long term goals and how action now would lead to sustainable rewards in future, but he was perhaps deterred by the short term nature of the coalition. He was also perhaps put off of any mention of “sustainability” because a truly sustainable recovery, that really could end “boom and bust” as Gordon Brown once rashly promised, would require substantial investment now to ensure growth, energy supplies and long lasting jobs. Cameron is simply not prepared to take the gambles required of the “greenest government ever”. His brush with the backlash of child benefits cuts this week has reinforced to him that it is difficult to justify changes of policy, particularly from those promised in manifestos, to the media and electorate. He will therefore not be seen to spend now, even if that spending is necessary because of what he has previously said. So despite the obvious passion and idealism of his speech, his actions as Prime Minister suggest that Cameron is happy for the “Big Society” to remain a vague enigma, which will inspire some, baffle many and prove largely immune to damaging criticism, as critics will remain unsure as to what it is they object to. And if the Prime Minister was truly serious about lifting the burden of debt from our children then he would also use the shield of coalition to act in the “national interest” now to avert a legacy of unalterable climate change for them to inherit.
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This article should be up on DemoCritic soon, and I’d ask any readers of my blog to check it out as my political pieces are usually published there along with great and varied contributions from a variety of others. So join the debate, express an opinion! Also check it out for the funky revamp of the look of the site alone!
It seems certain that the next leader of the Labour party will have the surname Miliband. The leadership contest so far has largely been a quiet, muted, good natured affair, perhaps mainly because of the brothers’ boring pact not to attack each other but also disappointingly by the failure of a third serious contender to emerge. In a previous article (A Two Ed Race? 28th June) I praised the vigour with which both Ed Miliband and Ed Balls took to opposition, whilst questioning the tame safety of David’s approach. Sadly whilst Balls has continued to display a dynamism on policy not matched by the other candidates it’s clear he has failed to gain enough support to make the battle a more interesting three way clash. Doubts also still remain about the benefits of either Miliband becoming the next leader.
With David the worry is stagnation. At a time when the Labour party requires a rebirth the elder Miliband brother may only offer repetition; a repetition of the failures of New Labour. For whilst David may rightly defend the successes of the Blair and Brown administrations against unfair rewrites of history by both the Tories and some within the party, to not make a decisive break with the past and all New Labour did wrong will not reinvigorate or cleanse the party in the eyes of the public. And the party needs a new lease of life. At the moment the Lib Dems are fragmenting, getting cold feet at the helm of power but not enough to pull the plug on a Conservative government. The cuts in public spending and particularly to the welfare state ought to provide a catalyst for a new generation of Labour activists to take the fight to the next election with renewed gusto. That election could come at any time, as who knows how precarious the coalition will become as tensions mount within the Lib Dems, especially once the holy referendum has passed. David Miliband is the walk-in Prime Minster candidate of this Labour leadership election, but would his Labour party reinvent itself sufficiently to win back voters?
With Ed there are perhaps more worries, more unknowns but the concern is not lack of change. He has enthusiastically denounced the Iraq war, a significant break with the failed past of New Labour. He has also advocated alternatives to tuition fees and made it clear Labour needs to win back the worker, the ordinary man the party’s foundations were built upon. It seems that a Labour party under his stewardship would be undoubtedly more left wing. An article in the Guardian today claims that Ed is the only Miliband to offer the Labour party the change it needs but others worry a realignment too far to the left, coupled with an inexperienced leader, would be catastrophic. I too have expressed concern that Ed Miliband would take the axe too severely to the Lib Dems, hacking away Labour’s chances of a coalition in a new era of closely fought, compromise politics. Both Milibands however must be aware of the drawbacks of their respective bids for power and I would therefore suspect a plan.
I’m not talking about the sort of shadowy deals that are now infamously connected to New Labour. I don’t think either Ed or David has seized the napkin at a family dinner, hastily sketched out his cabinet, a timeline of power and then thrust it across the table for their sibling’s signature. I think they are both genuinely contesting the leadership. However it shall be interesting to see exactly where the losing Miliband turns up in the shadow cabinet. Could David settle again at the Foreign Office and will Ed feel confident enough to demand the Treasury? The answers to these questions shall no doubt prove interesting as they unravel. More realistically though I would hope that Ed, on becoming leader, would divert his energy and verve to the creation of policy and the opposition of coalition policy, rather than simply targeting Lib Dem voters. Clearly winning back those who defected to the Lib Dems is one method of rebuilding Labour’s electoral strength but it does not go far enough to undo the damage and Ed’s current course of rhetoric sets him on a collision course that would make a Lib-Lab coalition unworkable when it could be likely. He calls Nick Clegg a traitor to Liberalism for example but they share many policy objectives and Ed would do better to emphasise similarities between his refreshed Labour and the Lib Dems than continually hammer on about the differences. An emphasis on similarities would still have the benefit of highlighting Labour’s new liberal credentials to undecided voters, whilst also sowing seeds of doubt within the coalition and laying the ground for a future alliance. Ed must surely be aware of all this and this leads me to suspect he will tone down his approach if elected, but keep playing the role of the change candidate for now.
David’s plan must be a bigger secret. He has so far revealed very little about the direction he would take Labour in, playing it safe with well meaning but fluffy talk about reconnecting with local activists and restoring trust. Today he acquired the backing of Jon Cruddas, an influential, left wing backbencher. Does Jon know something we don’t? You might have expected him to back Ed, whose programme of realignment towards the left so far seems much more radical. David must surely have plans to refresh his party, even if he disagrees that it needs a complete rebirth he must see the craving for new direction from its members and voters and the opportunities presented by a cutting coalition. He might be playing a very clever game; slowly accumulating the backing of his party before wrong footing the Conservatives with the revelation of his vision, an accessible, popular, new Labour party. If he does not have a plan then Labour supporters and perhaps the country should worry. Labour could find itself with either an unattractive, bland continuity figure unable to shake the legacy of Brown or an equally unelectable young, left wing scaremonger. We might find ourselves hoping for a third Miliband; a fusion of the two. This Miliband would be experienced, Prime Minister material and yet youthful, detached from New Labour but proud of its achievements, passionate about change but wary of not alienating middle class voters and, perhaps, a woman.
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