Although the media only really woke up to the populist dimensions of Ed Miliband’s One Nation approach this week, it has been a part of his political armoury for some time. The discursive construction of ‘the people’ versus powerful vested interests is a familiar one in politics, left and right, and it has been used repeatedly by Labour leaders down the years, including Tony Blair (as Ben Jackson recounts). Obama gave a masterclass in the controlled use of populist discourse in his re-election campaign last year, painting Romney as an out-of-touch, asset-stripping plutocrat on the wrong side of the Main St vs Wall St divide. Its appeal to Labour is obvious.
But it carries a risk. The tension at the heart of Labour’s electoral strategy is between radicalism and reassurance; between offering the electorate substantial economic change to transform their living standards, and reassuring them that it will manage the economy competently so as not to threaten their family fortunes. This is mirrored in an intellectual tension on the left between those who argue that the British economy is structurally weak and in need of radical surgery, and those who think that its pre-crash performance was fundamentally sound and that an expansive macro-stance will put it back on track (Gavin Kelly and I have addressed that question and Duncan Weldon’s piece is excellent). Ed Miliband is in the former camp. He has spent the last three years arguing for a ‘responsible capitalism’. Tellingly, he punctuated his speech this week by drawing the attention of his audience to the fact that the ‘most important thing he would say’ was that the link between growth and rising prosperity for working people had been broken, and that only substantial economic reform could restore it.
That belief points to a strategy which dramatises this failure at the heart of contemporary capitalism to guarantee prosperity and the prospect of a decent family life to the majority of the working population as a crisis that must be overcome through radical change. It is akin to the New Right’s strategy in the later 1970s in persuading people that the post-war Keynesian settlement was dead and that Britain’s renewal depended on a new, radically right-wing course (a position adopted again today by Osborne’s libertarian critics). It has the merit of directly addressing issues which go to the heart of contemporary economic debates (that is, whether technology, globalisation, corporate power, skills trends or some combination of all of these explains the uncoupling of real wage growth for ordinary workers and economic growth), unifying a set of policies and positions around a coherent core argument, and targeting voters’ real lived experiences.
However, it confronts serious challenges too. Labour has to persuade people that it can be a trusted agent of change, when all the polls show that it has not recovered is reputation for economic credibility. Addressing living standards takes Labour around the question of deficit reduction, not through it. Taking on powerful corporate interests must also be carefully calibrated: tilt too far and you appear anti-business, not just anti-oligopolist. And while Labour may have popular sentiment behind it on issues like energy prices, it lacks a broad and deep base of support, rooted in the historical agency of the working class, as it had in 1945.
The 1970s moment of crisis is a useful reference point in one further sense. The core Thatcher claim was not just that the British economy was being held back by inflation, union power and corporatism but also that she would unleash it through free enterprise and the profit motive. While she turned out to be a better destroyer than creator, her argument had clear enemies and an account of how things could be better and, crucially, who would make the improvement (entrepreneurs, businesses and investors).
So far, Miliband has done more on the critique and enemies, and less on the potential for future growth and prosperity if the longstanding structural weaknesses and vested interests were swept away. There is less, for instance, about the productive, creative economy – small firms, green growth, self-employment, social entrepreneurs and so on– which would flourish if the oligopolistic firms and predatory capital were taken down. That certainly applies to the ‘price cap’ versus ‘energy market reform’ distinction.
For all that, Miliband has chosen his course, and he did so fully in the knowledge that it would draw the reaction it has from the right-wing press and sections of the business community. His task now is to sustain momentum, buttress his credibility on the economy, and set out a plausible set of alliances that can bring him to power and sustain him there. The lack of what might be called a political sociology to underpin his electoral strategy has been thrown into sharper relief by the boldness of the path he has now taken. He needs to remedy that.
One coda to the events of the last few days. Education barely registered at the Labour conference or in Miliband’s speech. In part, that reflects the times. Wearily familiar evocations of educational aspiration and social mobility fall on deaf ears when the electorate can barely pay its bills. But education is too important to become a footnote in the left’s lexicon and it has come to something when the best that can be said of Labour’s policy stance is that nobody knows anything much about it. David Cameron will exploit that weakness in his conference speech next week, as he did last year. Labour has already ceded its leadership on education amongst the commentariat. It will be in greater trouble if the public follows.