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Wednesday, September 28, 2011 

A step in the right direction.

One of the benefits of waiting to pass judgement in this new age of instant comment and analysis is that it leaves time for the overall message of a speech to sink in. Somewhat hidden in what was, as all conference addresses by party leaders now must be, a fairly disjointed speech was a fundamental and absolute break with the era of New Labour.

Not of course that this is the first time such a break has been hinted at. Everyone else has repeatedly pronounced New Labour dead: when Northern Rock was nationalised, when the banks were bailed out, when the 50p top rate of tax for those earning over £150,000 was introduced, when Ed was elected leader last year and the heir apparent went off in a huff. The truth is that up until now the same old triangulation has been in evidence on all fronts; yes, Labour might have been demanding a Plan B on the economy, but it can hardly do otherwise when the coalition seems so determined to run it into the ground for no other reason than to ensure that Dave and George don't look like complete fools by performing their most spectacular u-turn yet. Why else did they demand that Ken Clarke resign having previously pledged to support him? Why carry on sitting to the right of the coalition on civil liberties when it achieves absolutely nothing except for the occasional mildly supportive word from the Sun? Why continue to give shadow cabinet jobs to such useless Blairite hacks as Caroline Flint and Tessa Jowell when the elections have now (rightly) been abolished? Why give the shadow chancellorship initially to Alan Johnson when Ed Balls, baggage carrying as he is, was the obvious choice?

Still, a year into the job and it does look as if Ed has finally gained enough confidence to take the party ever so slightly into a new direction. This sadly wasn't in evidence in the manner in which he delivered his speech, which has been discussed at length elsewhere. Whether it was nerves at taking this new line, or just that he's not the world's greatest speaker and is never going to be, although he certainly wasn't that bad when he was campaigning to be leader, the audience struggled to get into an address that contained far more in actual content than many of Tony Blair's efforts. Quite how far Blair's stock has fallen in the party that he led to three election victories became apparent when the very mention of his name was booed when Ed set out why he isn't like either of his predecessors; perhaps it had something to do with Peter Oborne's Dispatches documentary which aired on Monday night, the implication being that the former leader was another of those looking for something for nothing.

For while Miliband's phraseology was as clunky as we've come to expect from British politicians, his main targets were for the most part spot on. Here was a leader of a mainstream political party taking aiming at trickle-down economics; he might not have said neo-liberalism, as his strategist Stewart Wood repeatedly did in a New Statesman article, and he only said it once so many no doubt missed it, but here we finally have someone in a position of influence, on the inside as it were, saying that the past 30 years of voodoo economics has reached the end of its usefulness. It's difficult to overstate just how significant this is, at least when it comes to New Labour. The great bargain or understanding with business, which began under John Smith's leadership and was then fully implemented under Blair was that while the party would increase public spending and introduce a minimum wage, business and the City especially would be as lightly taxed and regulated as the wider party could tolerate. Tory spending plans would be followed for the first couple of years to build trust, then the full new deal as it were would begin.

By now making a distinction between predators and providers, however facile and simplistic a dichotomy that is, Miliband is recognising what has been the case all along: that not all businesses are equal, and that adopting such a policy in the first place was simply storing up problems for later. By encouraging a completely out of control consumer economy to develop, with families becoming ever more indebted as the years passed, New Labour has almost certainly lengthened the road to recovery following the crash. They shouldn't feel too guilty about this: everyone else was pursuing the same course, while the Tories were proposing even lighter touch regulation, and at one point were actively considering a flat tax. By going further than any party leader so far in making clear where the origins of the crash lie, and today responding to criticism of his stance with the far better soundbite of being anti-business as usual rather than "anti-business", he's began the crucial work of carving out a new niche for himself and Labour.

This isn't to downplay the obvious problems with Miliband's insistence that "producers" and "predators" will be treated differently should he become prime minister. How they will be identified to begin with is difficult to ascertain: Tesco for instance is without doubt one of the most predatory but also successful businesses in the country, employing thousands while riding roughshod over local objections to new stores, crushing independents and helping to kill off the high street. It also remains largely popular. This fundamental lack of detail, beyond his promise that only companies that "commit to training the next generation with decent apprenticeships" will get large government contracts, something almost certainly subject to legal challenge, is almost certainly why the response of the CBI was fairly low-key. They obviously don't believe either that Miliband can win the next election or that even if Labour does that such measures will be implemented.

At the moment, the public also finds it difficult to believe. First impressions are difficult to shake, and he continues to pay, not only for his poor performance at crucial moments, excepting on phone hacking, but also for daring to consider himself as offering something different and better than his brother. This is though still early days: as has been advised, most for now are paying little attention to Labour and won't do until the next election gets a little nearer. The problem with this view is that if Eurozone implodes, necessitating a further bank bailout and even harsher spending cuts, it's difficult to imagine the Liberal Democrats feeling able to continue to prop the Tories up. A snap election is still a distinct possibility, and with Labour's policies on everything else either remaining much the same or in utter disarray, there's not much rebuilding yet been finished. The foundations have been laid; now the real hard work begins.

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