At least that was the hope for yesterday’s speech by Ed Miliband, the head of the British Labour Party. It was hyped for days as his re-launch by the media, who see his poor standing in the polls and rumors in the party as evidence that his days as leader are numbered.
Many of the post-mortems on the speech are obsessing about whether it was a strong enough performance to get his leadership back on track. For what it’s worth, the consensus in the press is no, not really. That seems, though, at this point – 16 months into his leadership and three years before the next election- to somewhat miss the point: Labour is marginally ahead of the Conservatives even if Miliband’s own popularity is currently low and they should be doing better, the party does not jettison its leaders easily and it’s not clear who else in the party would gain enough support to replace him.
More to the point, this was an attempt to re-launch the Labour Party and more boldly, the politics of the Left in general. The speech buries New Labour. By focusing on the fact that the days of Labour victories during boom times are over, Miliband laid out a program (admittedly shorter on specifics than one might hope) for a new progressive politics in harsh times. He acknowledged that a Labour government in 2015 would need to make cuts but his is a rejection of the austerity sweeping Europe. He argues that the deep cuts that the Chancellor has imposed to lower the deficit (and that most of the other European countries with debt crises are doing) have not grown the economy but simply made the problem worse.
Miliband’s argued for a fairer distribution of economic rewards and a combination of higher taxes at the top as well as cuts. Some of his main points; “First, reforming our economy so we have long-term wealth creation with rewards fairly shared. Second, acting against vested interests that squeeze the living standards of families. And third, making choices that favour the hard-working majority.”
Will it work? Hard to say. Many of the points in the speech such as the emphasis on the famous ‘squeezed middle’ or attacks on crony capitalism are ones that he’s been pushing for some time but his thunder on them has been stolen as the coalition has embraced them as their own. It’s unclear whether the still strong Blair wing of the party will support what they see as attacks on business. He still needs to provide some specifics of actual policies that will lead to the job creation he envisions or how you encourage companies to ignore the short term interests of their shareholders. In this respect, it was not nearly as strong a speech as the one recently delivered by Obama in Kansas. And who wins the British election in three years time will have more to do with whether the economy is recovering at that point. But, it is the beginning of a conversation in Europe about both the limits of austerity and the old politics of the Left. For that reason, it’s worth listening to.