As ever, Jeeves has the answer: “You would not enjoy Nietzsche, sir. He is fundamentally unsound.” Those were his words to Wooster when he learned that Lady Florence intended to start him on a programme of philosophical improvement as part of their engagement.
It isn’t clear who decided to set Ed Miliband on a course of self-improvement – but then this is his third or fourth such relaunch of his leadership so it isn’t the first attempt. He opened his speech with a Nietzsche quotation, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I’m not sure the polling evidence showing the degradation of Labour’s lead continuing bears this out – Miliband is experiencing a political death of a thousand cuts.
Perhaps a more appropriate line would have been “When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back at you.” The electoral abyss must have got a good look at the Labour leader by now.
For a relaunch, there wasn’t really anything new in the Senate House speech.
We heard a return to the language of “predators and producers” in business – despite Miliband and Umunna’s failure to actually name any firm they consider to be a predator.
We were told that Britain is a “zero zero economy” in which people “are on zero hours contracts while some of those at the top get away with paying zero tax”. I’ve yet to come across anyone who pays zero tax – though the closest to it would be the three million lowest paid workers who pay zero income tax thanks to George Osborne. When handed a softball question from the audience of Labour members and supporters offering him the chance to say he would ban zero hours contracts, Miliband dodged it.
He declared that “powerful forces” were out to stop him becoming Prime Minister – a traditional way of someone in trouble to excuse their failings. When he promised to tackle “vested interests” he strangely failed to mention the union barons who gave him his job or the taxpayer-funded lobbyists who press for left wing policies. Apparently vested interests on your own side are okay.
During the Q&A session, the Labour leader resorted to telling barefaced untruths about his opponents, suggesting that the Conservatives now claim the economy is “fine” and “fixed” – neither of which they have ever actually said.
To his credit, he did remember to mention the deficit this time (albeit with the aid of two autocues):
“There was a global financial crash only a few years ago and there is a deficit that still has to be paid down. And we will pay the deficit down in a fair way. That’s why change has to be about big reform, not about big spending. And in fact, big spending can’t change the fundamentals of an economy that doesn’t work for working people. And we won’t have the money to do it anyway.”
Though that isn’t saying much. Note that yet again he dodged taking responsibility for the contribution which Blair and Brown’s debt finance has made to the deficit, blaming the financial crisis instead. As for his solution, Labour has opposed “big reform” in every arm of the public sector over the last four years – from education to prisons, from Whitehall to welfare – and reject hundreds of measures to end “big spending”. At the same time, they have pledged to spend the money from a magical bank tax several times over. If voters didn’t trust them on fiscal policy yesterday, those five meagre sentences won’t change anyone’s mind.
In short, it wasn’t so much a relaunch as a restatement of his failing 35 per cent strategy. His belief that by appealing to the left’s core vote with business-bashing, class warfare and threats to raise taxes he can waltz into Downing Street appears to be undimmed.
The reaction of the audience bears this out – if anything, they were more interesting than the man addressing them. Having cheered every cliche presented to them, they proceeded to boo, hiss and heckle any journalist who dared to ask a question that was even half-critical. Several proceeded to denounce members of the press to their faces after the event ended. Whereas Miliband’s relaunch saw him stay the same, this was a sign of a real change on the left. Labour, it seems, are following the SNP down the rabbit hole of media conspiracy theories.
If there are critical headlines, it’s a plot by the Tory press. If Labour MPs are reported to be criticising their leader, it’s a fabrication by the Tory press. If the polls are sinking, it’s the effects of plots and fabrications by the Tory press. Never will they pause to consider the possibility that maybe they are just messing up.
Uncomfortable as it would be for Miliband and those around him to consider, maybe there is a “powerful force” that doesn’t want him to be Prime Minister: it’s called the electorate.