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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I have just finished watching Ed Miliband’s first speech as the new leader of the Labour party. It began with a volley of jokes, of human humour, that must have had many Labour supporters sighing with relief that they at least now had a leader who could smile and appear accessible to the public, following the stoic, grim Scott that preceded him. Indeed the strongest feature of the speech was a man with beliefs and ordinary concerns defining himself, announcing himself to the people of Britain. Here was a reasonable, genuine man the public could relate to but did he have the stature of a leader?
Yesterday elder brother David delivered a rallying cry to his party that had the media scrambling to suggest Labour had picked the wrong Miliband and that David Cameron had been right to fear the Shadow Foreign Secretary the most. Losing by the narrowest of margins, the bouncy figure once derided as Mr Bean and Banana Man looked like a leader, like a man who could be Prime Minister. In contrast Ed can sometimes look like a rabbit caught in the headlights, particularly in the acceptance speech immediately following his victory and again at times today. He can also look a soft geeky presence rather than a strong inspiring one, ready for the challenge of leadership and Opposition.
But David lost for a reason. The elder Miliband was content to ride a wave of guaranteed support to the leadership, with minimal effort. He may have honed his demeanour and conducted himself like a leader, but he did not reach out enough in the necessary ways. He was essentially lazy. He had incredibly strong support and need only had made some minor concessions to the trade unions and supporters of his brother to secure victory. He lost because he refused to break with the past of New Labour in the way that many grass roots voters wanted. He was admirably defiant about New Labour’s positive legacy but made few moves to indicate where the project went wrong and more importantly in which direction he would take it. David did not grab and harness the mood of change.
Ed, like David Cameron and Barack Obama and even Tony Blair, who emerged from almost nowhere to lead their country, did recognise the value of a clean slate, of a breath of fresh air. He recognised that the party knew it had stagnated and the electorate were no longer interested unless it refreshed its ideas, reconnected with its ideals in a new optimistic way. Ed ended his speech by declaring his Labour to be the party of optimism in contrast to Cameron’s cuts. He began his speech talking about a new generation. During his speech we learnt little more about Ed’s policy vision for the party, as he perhaps wisely kept most hands close to his chest, vague and adaptable to the demands of Opposition. However during his campaign Ed’s denouncement of Iraq, and his support for a living wage, AV and a graduate tax, were all bigger indicators of Ed’s Labour party than David was willing to offer. His brother simply didn’t offer the progressive policies that even many in the Labour old guard wanted to see championed now by a new wave of youthful renewal, equal to the challenge of Clegg and Cameron’s Con-Dem coalition.
Following Ed’s triumph though the media have blasted him and he has been labelled a puppet of the unions, “Red Ed”, out of touch with the core middle England vote. He moved quickly to counter these claims with interviews in the Sunday Telegraph and on the Andrew Marr show, saying he would fight for Britain’s “squeezed middle”. Reading the coverage of his victory I noticed that David Cameron had called Ed to congratulate him from Chequers, and warned him that his job would be a tough one. I can’t help but think Cameron would not have been so eager to call, or so superior and wise in his manner, had the more experienced and in his view more threatening elder brother won the contest. Cameron no doubt sees Ed as an easy target and may already be eyeing a second term, free of Lib Dem constraint. “Red ED” will be inexperienced and easy to sideline as an illegitimate Union toy, keen on tax rises and simply not credible on the economy. He also authored Labour’s last, losing election manifesto, and is not as new and fresh as he would make out. Cameron should easily get the better of him at PMQs for a while and any Labour poll leads will prove superficial when 2015 comes around and the coalition has secured economic recovery.
Ed must obviously be cautious that he is not unfairly painted by the Tories and that his policies do not alienate the very voters Labour must win back in the south, the voters who chose Blair in 1997. This accounts for his soothing rhetoric with regards to the middle classes. But Ed must hold his nerve and be bold too and learn the lessons of his leadership victory. He won because he presented a more dynamic vision on policy than his brother. He won with a clear progressive message. He also won because although he may not look like a leader at times he does look genuine, not a fake performer but an actual idealist, committed to what he says, reasonable and pragmatic in his approach and willing to talk about love and compassion in ways other politicians of different generations cannot. He must not tarnish the positive, honest image he is building for himself with the British people by muddling his message. He must not take fright at the newspaper headlines and give out mixed views but continue to pursue the radical, progressive and optimistic agenda that carried him through his campaign. He should not be afraid to take a distinctive stance on the deficit with a different emphasis on tax and other kinds of cuts than those proposed by the coalition, as long as it is credible. He should prove he is a man of his word and not simply a career politician by putting a green economy, green taxes and carbon emissions reductions at the heart of his party’s policy, following his role as Climate Change Secretary. He has the potential to both inspire a new youthful generation on issues of the day such as new politics and global warming and reconnect with the values of older generations on issues like family, Afghanistan and tax. The formation of his Shadow Cabinet in the coming weeks will be the first true test of Ed’s leadership qualities and also be crucial to defining his vision for the party. Whatever his brother decides to do Ed must remain proactive in challenging the establishment as he said in his speech and not budge on his message of a progressive alternative for Britain, regardless of media pressure. Voters will repay passionate consistent calls for change in the long run.
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