by Paul Goodman
The conventional wisdom is that successful leaders of British political parties move quickly once elected. Tony Blair was swift to try and change perceptions of his Party, and won three terms as Prime Minister. So was David Cameron, and though he didn't win the last election, he did make it into Downing Street as leader of the largest party.
Ed Miliband hasn't acted in the same way. He hasn't flung his energies into trying to transform the way people think about Labour – especially in the south, where it's weakest. So he must either be incapable of acting on it, or think that this usual view is rubbish. I've thought to date, on the basis of what Miliband's done to date, that it's the latter, and his speech this morning tends to confirm it.
The foundation stone of the speech is his belief is that Britain has a "progressive majority". Now, we can all try to make the word progressive mean whatever we want it to mean, but one point's clear. Miliband's convinced that Labour's deepest instincts are the same as those of the British people. The view fits neatly with his take on why the last Labour Government failed.
"For all our achievements," he said, "I know what our biggest problem was – it afflicts all governments. We became too technocratic and managerial." According to Miliband, Labour didn't lose votes because, for example, it borrowed too much or taxed too heavily – indeed, he specifically defended Brown's borrowing – or because it regulated too readily or intervened too often. It did so because it became too desk-bound.
I'm not sure that this take ties in with Miliband's list of the mistakes that he thinks Labour made. He cites "failing to properly regulate the banks", "a fairer sharing of the nation's wealth", "our willingness to support the reduction of 28 day detention to 14 days", and turning "a blind eye to the impact of out of town retail developments and post office branch closures."
Certainly, the nods to civil liberties and localism, and criticism of the "target culture" and "managerialism" are new ground for Labour after recent years. But there's nothing in the speech to surprise a right-of-centre voter (in the unlikely event of such a person reading or watching it) – to make such a person look at Miliband afresh. I know that I'm a committed Conservative, but I've been around long enough (I'm afraid), to have at least one dispassionate eye with which to see.
Indeed, the Labour's leader's default conviction appears to be that Labour lost by not being left-wing enough, albeit in a greenish, devolutionary way. This is at odds with his line on managerialism, but the speech can't help drifting that way. "We can’t build economic efficiency or social justice simply in the way we have tried before." He then repeats his commitment to "the living wage".
So the social justice policy angle is covered. But what about economic efficiency? Where are the new ideas to boost jobs and growth? I understand that socialists believe that a state-guaranteed living wage will do this. But right-of-centre voters don't. They are, broadly speaking, pro-free market, tough on crime, pro-marriage, and sceptical about the EU and man-driven global warming.
Perhaps Miliband, for all that he goes on about the squeezed middle" (or, as I prefer to call them, Sids's heirs: a sizeable chunk of which are right-of-centre voters), believes that he can do without them. And maybe he's right. His Party won 258 seats on a paltry 29 per cent of the vote. Perhaps he thinks, despite his words to the contrary, that one more heave will do it.
Or again, maybe he suspects that the next Commons will also be hung, and that the Liberal Democrats will come in with him. That would make sense of his warnings against gloating after Oldham, and his talk of a "progressive majority". Conventional wisdom isn't always right. But it's a big gamble for Miliband not to challenge his supporters' prejudices, but to confirm them.
"The Labour party still has to change," Miliband said in a Guardian article this morning trailing his speech. But neither sounded as though he believes it.