The Labour Party has had an extraordinary week in Brighton. Despite sniping from both left and right, it has looked like a week when the political game has been blown wide open; partly because of important policy announcements, but I feel that there is something deeper, more important going on.
The most eye-catching announcement of course was Ed Miliband’s announcement of a freeze on energy prices for the first 20 months of a Labour Government; a prelude to a full shake-up of the energy market. It’s a totemic announcement for a number of reasons; most of all because it signals a return to one of the fundamentals of social democratic government – that a strong and enabling state has the right and duty to intervene in a failing market, where an oligopoly – some would say a cartel – has extracted vast profits by setting high prices. It’s also a political stroke of genius; it speaks directly to one of the most important consequences of austerity economics, that, while real incomes continue to fall sharply, the prices of essentials continue to soar. It also speaks directly to middle England; people who own their own homes, especially older people, who are afraid to keep themselves warm over the winter. Many of the people who will applaud this decision are natural Conservatives, or even people who have flirted with UKIP.
The genius of this proposal is shown by the way it has completely thrown the Tories; their response has been to defend profiteering energy companies, while indulging in the sort of red-baiting content-free rhetoric that shows they’re completely shaken. Energy companies threaten power blackouts in terms that, if used by trade unionists, would have every tabloid editor and backbench Tory MP frothing in condemnation. And no wonder – Ed Miliband has shown here, as over Syria, that he can drive the political agenda too. And how the Tories hate it – and how utterly incoherent their response is when they can’t get their way.
But there was a torrent of other policy announcements at the conference too: house-building, wrap-around care at schools, and much more. It would be easy to get carried away – if you look at these proposals in detail they are not as radical as you might suppose. Richard Murphy in his ever-excellent blog warned that “austerity socialism” remains a contradiction in terms. Earlier in the week I blogged the speech I would have wanted Ed Balls to make, and predictably enough the real thing went nowhere near in policy terms as I would have liked. As I blogged before, there was one very significant change; an apparent softening of the line on implementing George Osborne’s SR 2013 spending limits; very welcome as far as it goes, but I’d like it to go a lot further.
But, significantly, quite a lot of the language of my faux speech was there, to an extent that really surprised me. It is perhaps the language of Labour that has undergone the biggest change, and that has provoked such media fury. Sometimes, during the Blair era, one felt that the leaders of New Labour were taking an almost perverse pleasure in taking down the old ethically based language of Labour in favour of managerialism (they no doubt would argue that they were discarding outmoded baggage in the name of electability). Here were concerns straight from daily life – about the cost of living, about wages and jobs, about fairness and equity (although perhaps not yet equality). It was almost as if, after the Blair years, Labour was finding the confidence to be Labour again; a point not lost on right-wing journalists (language is after all their trade, even in the Sun). Hence the fury.
And confidence is very much the key to Ed Miliband’s speech in particular; the mantra that Britain can be better than this is the sort of slogan that sticks, and contrasts powerfully with the essentially negative rhetoric of the Coalition, which claims that we must set ambition aside in the name of fiscal rectitude. There was a defeatism in the language of New Labour, with all its talk of realism, that Ed Miliband appears to have left behind. Yes, the policy framework – though better populated than before – still needs a lot of fleshing out; but tone and values matter, which is why the change in language is so important.
There is still a long way to go; in Tory Britain, the road to the New Jerusalem has had its repair budget slashed. And there were lapses; it was a pity that towards the end of the conference Ed Balls slipped into the tired old dog-whistle about hard-working families. It was perhaps the contrast with the inclusiveness and optimism of what went before that marked out this lapse. The next general election is going to be the dirtiest in history, as Lynton Crosby deploys his black arts to deliver to Cameron the victory his supporters expected in 2010. But if Labour can set the agenda, from a social democratic perspective, in authentic language that resonates with the concerns and aspirations, as well as the fears, of the bulk of electors rather than the privileged few who dictate the austerity agenda, the game will be very different. It seemed to me that the language of this conference was doing that, and often to a startling degree.
Language matters, because it frames values. Obviously the policy has to be there, and Labour clearly has a lot of work to do. But as someone who had no sympathy with New Labour and who was up until recently a member of the Green Party I was rather surprised to find just how comfortable I was with the language of the conference. My personal experience of being in the Labour Party in the late 1990s was very far from comfortable, and I found myself reflecting that the things that I found discouraging then – the tribalism and the lack of inclusiveness – were simply not reflected in what I was hearing. I did wonder whether this was a party traumatised by Blairism, finally in recovery and discovering its voice once again.
Yes – speaking personally once again – I believe Labour needs to be fiscally bolder, needs to abandon workfare, needs to embrace the principle of generous and universal benefits. But the language was hugely encouraging. Perhaps Labour really can be better than this.