Steve Richards: It's Miliband who captures the mood of the times

There was once an unswerving consensus that we all benefited from a few people getting filthy rich. Not any longer

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In tumultuous times, successful leaders either have convictions that chime with the mood or a wilful flexibility to adapt. The rest are swept aside. In every case, the flow of events determines their fates. Currently, their flow intensifies. After the financial crisis erupted in 2008, a Labour cabinet minister observed to me that, with the MPs' expenses scandal, Britain was engulfed by explosive political and economic crises at the same time. He noted that there had to be momentous consequences, was surprised there were no great stirrings already, was not sure what form the changes would take except that they would be as dramatic as the events that had triggered them.

The early declarations of other figures caught up in the drama were similarly tentative. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, wondered aloud why people were not angrier. The only flash of fury during the 2010 election campaign arose when Gordon Brown clashed with Mrs Duffy. Apart from that famous exchange, the campaign was passionless at a point of epoch- making change.

The result of the 2010 election was an early sign something big was happening. No party won an overall majority, a rare occurrence. Voters wanted to punish Labour and yet recognised that David Cameron and George Osborne had not risen to the challenge of wildly changing times, and perhaps could not. Some of Cameron's more perceptive advisers regard the decision of the Conservative leadership to oppose Labour's fiscal stimulus in 2008 as a mistake. They are right. Their opposition returned them to an outdated place they had seemed to want to abandon. The Cleggmania of the election was another early symptom of deep unease, the hope that an unknown leader, arriving from nowhere, could be different.

Now the whirlwind of events has many unsettling consequences. If Cameron and Osborne had made their spending cuts in the 1980s, there would have been many victims. But then a significant proportion of the electorate would be starting to feel better off. Today, most voters nervously wonder how much worse off they will be when the next election arrives. The recent panic-stricken demands from Cameron to speed up capital spending, instructions that are worthy and deserve full support, are a sign of fearful impatience at the top. But in imposing cuts too speedily Cameron/Osborne looked to the past, and to instincts shaped by the past, for guidance and took a false path.

The protesters at St Paul's are not sure what they want, but they are closer to the new terrain. Protesters rarely agree on what they are for, but do know what they are against. In this case, it is the excesses of unconstrained capitalism. Alert to the rhythms of politics, Cameron has not unequivocally attacked them in the way that Margaret Thatcher and her Defence Secretary, Michael Heseltine, condemned the CND protesters at Greenham Common in the 1980s. Thatcher and Heseltine were winning the argument, and then forced even Neil Kinnock to move away from unilateralism. Events were flowing in their favour. Now Cameron knows the protesters speak for many, even if their message is imprecise. Ed Miliband has explicitly stated that they do, but also argues it is in the political arena that the debate should be given form and shape.

In the 1980s and 1990s, a debate about the morality of capitalism would have gone nowhere. An unswerving consensus formed that we all benefited from a few getting filthy rich. After Labour lost the 1992 election, a result as significant as 1945 and 1979, Blair/Brown concluded that the best they could aim for was to let the financial markets boom and spend some of the proceeds on public services. In the US, Bill Clinton had led the way, adapting to prevailing orthodoxies, rather than challenging them.

Those orthodoxies are dying, which is why the debate about the morality of capitalism breathes. Early in his leadership, Cameron spoke of corporate and social responsibility, a recognition that more was expected of capitalism than short-sighted self-interest. But his 1980s disdain for the state means he is wary of imposing new regulation, preferring to "nudge" the reckless towards responsibility. We know this is not enough. The most infamous banker, Fred Goodwin, was nudged to the point where his life must have been hell. Still he opted to take as much money as he could.

Ed Miliband's conference speech was widely derided, but in devoting himself to an argument about when markets work and when they do not, and in subsequent interviews, he captures, to some extent, the mood of the times. Perhaps he will not come up with the policies to accompany his analysis. Maybe Cameron will escape his past to address the transforming situation. Sometimes he shows signs that he knows he must do so. But at this very early stage of an unfolding storm, Miliband's convictions guide him more instinctively in the same direction as the tidal waves.

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

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