Steve Richards: Change is in the air. Labour understands this, Tories don't

Bob Diamond's resignation is the latest vivid sign that the old order is crumbling

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The Independent Online

The slow British revolution that began in 2008 moves a little quicker towards its still vaguely defined dénouement. There is tangible change in the air, but with gusts of wind from the old era that will not blow away. The resignation of Barclays' chief executive is the latest vivid sign that the old order is crumbling. Bob Diamond's demise joins the arrests of senior journalists who once reduced elected politicians to quivering wrecks as symbols of change. Those that once exerted power with the swagger of the unaccountable bully are now the ones pleading for a hearing.

Yet the pleading is half-hearted. The previously mighty bankers and journalists still exude an out-dated sense of grievance. The delusional self-pity is a sign that they have no idea they are stumbling towards a new era where the old rules will no longer apply. They are like some trade union leaders in the late 1970s who failed to realise they no longer held sway and had terrible consequences to face.

The bankers and journalists are not alone. The same slow pace applies to government as it did in the 1970s when Tory and Labour prime ministers struggled to adapt. Tardily, George Osborne announces only a parliamentary investigation, showing he does not quite appreciate that he, too, is living through a phase of change that challenges many of the assumptions which shaped his political outlook in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, he sees, characteristically, a tactical opportunity.

Evidently, Osborne hopes to repeat the trick he played in the 2010 election when he blamed the entire global economic crisis on the previous Labour government. This time, he suggests that Ed Balls is "in the dock" over the fiddling of an interest rate. In an extraordinarily unrestrained interview to The Spectator magazine, he can barely contain his excitement at the turn of events, a strategist showing without much subtlety what his strategy is.

Not for the first time, he faces disappointment. His announcement of a puny parliamentary inquiry will provoke persistent criticism as new episodes of the banking scandal erupt, from the scale of Bob Diamond's pay-off to further revelations of banks' misconduct. Almost certainly, poor vulnerable victims of this unfolding saga will appear and generate a more accessibly emotional furore, as happened when reports emerged that Milly Dowler's phone had been hacked. Calls for a judicial inquiry will not fade quickly, placing Osborne and others on the defensive.

Osborne might have landed Balls in a metaphorical dock for a few days. But given the Shadow Chancellor's unequivocal denial of involvement in the fiddling of interest rates, he will struggle to keep him there for very long. Osborne's transparent scheming reminds me of an early political manoeuvre that did not go according to plan. Around the time Lehman Brothers collapsed in 2008 when he was shadow Chancellor, Osborne was busy briefing friendly journalists about what Peter Mandelson had said to him when the two met on holiday in Corfu. Famously, this placed Osborne, not Mandelson, in a metaphorical dock, but – more worrying – the then shadow Chancellor should have been wholly focused on the apocalyptic economic events as famous banks went into meltdown.

While it is understandable to target key figures of the party in power at the time – Labour would do the same – the banking crisis merits a deeper response and will overwhelm all trivial attempts to make a quick political hit. I am told some of Cameron's allies in No 10 are wary of Osborne's game-playing at a point when they could do with co-operation with Labour over their proposed inquiry.

Nonetheless, there is a lesson for Labour in the Chancellor's mischievous ebullience. Labour's record in power is rarely questioned on the grounds that it was too left wing. Instead, it is Tony Blair's close relationship with President Bush and Gordon Brown's embrace of the light regulatory framework instigated during the Thatcher/Reagan era that remain the subject of intense, and seemingly eternal, critical scrutiny. The duo, brought up on the back of successive election defeats, felt they had no choice but to adapt to the seemingly irreversible tides, and perhaps they were right. But when Ed Miliband is accused of being too left wing, not least from within his party, it is worth remembering a fear of such an accusation shaped New Labour's cautious thinking when it came to intervening in the conduct of the booming City.

When Miliband became Labour leader, his noisy critics predicted that, partly because he was too left wing, he would be Labour's William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith. I argued at the time that this could not be Miliband's fate because the context in which he led was unrecognisably more benevolent. Hague and Duncan Smith were leaders facing landslide governments in an economic boom. Miliband's position was closer to Margaret Thatcher's when she became leader of the Opposition in a hung parliament amidst an economic crisis in the mid-1970s.

Miliband is a very different character from Thatcher, even in her early, hesitant phase of leadership, but he has also led, at least in one respect, as she did in the late 1970s. Thatcher recognised the old corporatist consensus was dying even as senior figures in both parties sought fruitlessly to breathe fresh life into it. She brought forward, at first cautiously, a new radical agenda that seemed to chime with fast-moving external events. Miliband has done the same, identifying the urgent need for a more responsible capitalism. The policy implications need to be thought through carefully, but he is ahead of the curve and being vindicated by events, as Thatcher was from the right in the late 1970s.

A year ago today, Miliband called for a public inquiry into the conduct of the media. Today he will press his case for a similar one into the banks. Such inquiries take a long time, but this is a British revolution. The insurrectionaries are willing to wait. In the meantime, no leader will be seen at a Rupert Murdoch summer party this year and no leader will praise Bob Diamond's noble contribution to the British economy; further indications that the times are changing, even if no one knows precisely what form the new era will take.

s.richards@independent.co.uk; twitter.com/@steverichards14

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