Well that was a rubbish week, wasn’t it? We Labour activists seem to have had quite a few rubbish weeks since 2005. This one struck particularly close to home as two of the star players contributing to Labour’s woes were fellow members of the Hackney Labour party Diane Abbott and Lord Glasman, and the medium leading to two of the woeful episodes was Twitter, of which I consider myself something of an aficionado.
But on the plus side a week of dreadful headlines still left us level-pegging on the polls (40 per cent Con, 40 per cent Lab, 10 per cent LD according to YouGov).
The really sad bit about last week is that a run of political car crashes meant there wasn’t good coverage for some very sensible interventions on policy from three of the stars of the shadow cabinet, Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg.
Anyway, the Labour party (or at least its online manifestation, which is probably a bit more flighty and easy to panic than the older generation of activists who are less likely to use social media) did what in recent years it has most loved doing, and indulged in a bout of self-harming leadership speculation.
Which brings us to Tuesday’s speech by Ed Miliband.
It wasn’t delivered perfectly. Wherever the fluent, charismatic, barnstorming speaker called Ed Miliband is who I saw speak without notes at Labour’s spring conference in 2008 and decided I wanted to support for leader, please can he come back? He’s in there somewhere and is an election winner.
There was still too much theoretical, sociological language. I am not convinced most voters know what the word ‘capitalism’ means so we need to stop using it and maybe say ‘big business’ instead.
There was still a bit too much of the abstract and not enough policy meat for the practical-minded battlers of England’s marginal seats.
To my tastes, still not enough red-blooded attack on the Tories.
But in terms of the party’s positioning on the economy, and nailing the lie that we are not serious about deficit reduction, Ed did exactly what he needed to at a moment of crisis, and in doing so stabilised his position.
It ought not to have been a surprise that he did so. All the key themes in the speech about how we make social democracy work in an era when there is no cash were not new ones for Ed to articulate. They are exactly what he has been saying for months, including in his conference speech and his speech in the autumn to the Social Market Foundation.
Ed has ‘got’ the reality of the economic scenario and what it means for a future Labour government for a long time. Fairness during times of austerity, tackling the unfair excesses of big business (see I managed to avoid saying ‘capitalism’ – it is possible!) and the unfair low pay of the working poor, regrowing our economy through high-skilled manufacturing jobs not service drudgery or casino-style speculative bubbles. None of this was new for Ed to say, but at last people are paying attention instead of lazily projecting their hopes or fears onto Ed. They’ve started to actually listen to him and have stopped labelling him as ‘left’. I understand why people did this: my opponents on the left of the party wanted to kid themselves that they had voted for someone who was economically irresponsible; many of my friends and allies on the right of the party understandably wanted the satisfaction of believing they had done the right thing not voting for him.
It’s odd that it took a crisis and this make-or-break speech for Labour activists to actually listen to what Ed is saying about the economy. It’s certainly a different position to the one we had as New Labour in government. Sadly the money isn’t there for a rerun of those years any time soon. But it certainly isn’t a leftwards move to acknowledge that, say we will be fiscally prudent, and instead look for other policy tools for advancing our social democratic values.
Now, he’s addressed the big question of our economic stance, or rather addressed it again while he had our attention, to the satisfaction of what polls say public opinion is, and of those bits of our party who are actually interested in winning elections. In return we need to give him the space, time, constructive advice and support to consistently be the really impressive politician and potential PM that he is capable of being.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.