Let me try to be constructive about Ed Miliband’s big speech on the economy on Friday. It didn’t say much. He had gone to a lot of trouble over it. Worked on it for weeks. Discussed it with colleagues. Memorised it all, so that he could do his “walk and talk” act, again.
At this point I recall Labour’s former MP, Tony Wright, whose academic career was interrupted when he was selected unexpectedly for Cannock and Burntwood in 1992. “Nobody had ever talked to us like you did,” an elderly party member told him. Pleased with his compelling oratory, he asked her to elaborate. “You were like a lecturer, walking about.” We are all for natural delivery, but we have to wonder if it is the best use of a leader’s time to commit free verse to memory.
Still, David Cameron did it too when he was in opposition. I suppose it is a way of letting people know that you are taking the business of opposition seriously. So let us pay Miliband the compliment of taking this speech seriously. Let us assume that it was the considered product of deep thought and arduous preparation. And let us exhale deeply in relief that there was so little in it.
Actually, it was better than that, because there were two new banks in it. Miliband’s plan for the new economy is more competition. This is better than the alternative, even if it is not proven that there is too little competition in banking (or gas, electricity and transport). But there was little new policy in the speech.
I know the lust for novelty is a besetting sin of British journalism. Another is the tendency to mock that French journalist in a south-bank scarf who asked the second question at François Hollande’s press conference and simply ignored the scooter and croissants.
I also know that politicians try to resist the pressure to announce something “new”, because their interest is in repeating the same things over and over again. They know that most voters don’t notice most of what they say, so Miliband’s lines about the cost-of-living crisis and “they believe in a race to the bottom, we believe in a race to the top”, are part of what might be called a media strategy.
There was a lot of supporting material of the “feel your pain” kind, because you cannot just string soundbites together. Life is tough. Things are expensive. People worry about how their children will get on. There is no harm in politicians explaining they understand people’s problems. It is the next bit that is worrying. “The people at the top, they seem to be doing OK.”
“It used to be that this country worked for ordinary people; it just doesn’t seem to any more.”
Miliband is not going to pitch a tent on the steps of St Paul’s, but there is a hint here of the Occupy ideology. And, as Michael Ignatieff pointed out last week, “The Occupy movement came and went without leaving an intellectual trace.” Perhaps that was because it was so insulting to “the 99 per cent” to suggest that they had been outwitted by the 1 per cent.
I know many people feel strongly that something went horribly wrong in 2008 and that those responsible ought to be brought to book and have not been. But this is scapegoat-hunting not economic analysis. Financial services are still a huge and growing source of national prosperity, and leadership means explaining this to people, not waving the biggest pitchfork.
Fortunately, however, Miliband went no further. Happy to leave the implication of a great injustice hanging over his memorised text, he concluded that something must be done, and the next Labour government would do it.
Imagine how much worse things would have been if he had spelled out in detail the “big things” that “need to change” – if, having said, “the problems are deep, the solutions need to be too”, he said what the deep solutions would be. Imagine if, having complained about “broken markets”, he had ripped up capitalism and replaced it with something else.
But no, the policies to deal with these broken markets are small, technical and phrased in the language of more competition. The challenge of changing “the way our country is run” is to be met by a reference to the Competition and Markets Authority. Thank goodness for that. Miliband is trying to maintain the same straddle that most opposition leaders do: of promising great but unspecific change, and at the same time small, believable and specific adjustments. It usually ends in tears, as the promise of change ends up with more of the same.
In France, it happened quite quickly, as François Hollande’s tax-the-rich prospectus collided with reality. One linguist in Number 10 has already coined Hollibandisme as the description of the kind of impossible promises that lead to a left-winger becoming the most unpopular leader of a government since the invention of modern opinion polling.
Miliband, to his credit, does not propose a 75p-in-the-pound top rate of income tax. But the vague promise of “big things” and “deep solutions” will lead only to trouble, either before the election or afterwards. And, if it is afterwards, I bet we don’t even get a decent sex scandal to go with it.