Alex Massie

Ed Miliband: Voice of a New Generation?

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I was playing golf this afternoon and so didn't watch Milifest live. But having watched Ed Miliband's speech and, more importantly, having read it one thing is clear: there was a good speech in there. Unfortunately it was the speech Miliband gave defending the record of the first two Blair ministries. That part of his address had a coherence to it that was absent once he started to talk about the here and now and, even more problematically, the future.

Indeed, defending the first two parliaments of New Labour only served to remind one how pointless the third was and how little thought  - in part because there hasn't been enough time for said thought - has gone into retooling Labour for opposition. All this talk of "change" seems a little irrelevent just120 days after the country has decided to change* government itself. (This is why it would have been wiser, in my view, for Labour to wait 18 months before deciding upon their new, long-term leader. Go away and think and then choose the leader; don't choose the leader and then start the thinking.)

Not least because apart from the usual bromides about values and community (most of which could have been served by David Cameron) it was clear that Ed Miliband hasn't actually decided where he stands on an entire range of issues. Notionally he is in favour of reducing the deficit, just not in favour of anything that might in fact reduce it. Similarly, he's in favour of public service reform but couldn't bring himself to even mention the word "academy".

And there was much talk - superficially attractive - that Labour should recognise that the state could itself be a "vested interest".  But this was accompanied by the line that "unless reformed, unless accountable, unless responsive, government can impede the good society." In other words, it is the state that will deliver "the good society", not society itself.

How about this, for example:

"When I look at some of the challenges we face as a country - from gangs to teenage pregnancy - it is only a government that stands up for families that are trying their best to bring up their kids that can offer answers."

Again, I'm not sure what this means. Certainly there are incentives and programmes that can help in these areas but the suggestion that it is "only a government that stands up for families" that "can offer answers" is at best deluded and certainly somewhat telling.

For that matter, Miliband Minor has won praise for supposedly slapping-down the Trade Unions. "I have no truck, and you should have no truck, with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes" he said. Is it too pedantic to point out that what this means is that he will have no truck with "overblown rhetoric" and not that he will have no truck with "irresponsible strikes."

Doubtless that's unfair. But there was also the sense that the problem with this rhetoric (and perhaps even the strikes) wasn't that they might be thought irresponsible and contra the public interest but that they would end up being a tactical and perhaps even strategic defeat for the union movement. So I advise that one should wait and see on this. I have my doubts that Ed is really going to abandon the unions (Unite and the GMB) that delivered him the leadership.

As for the rest of it: well the parts on civil liberties were intriguing. Where has this Miliband been? Was he mute in cabinet all those years? Or has someone suggested that since lots of Guardian readers care about these issues he should say something about them too.

For that matter there was obviously a political need to hammer the Iraq war; his suggestion that foreign policy be set by "values" not "alliances" was a cheap rhetorical trick that won't have any impact on anything but was still unworthy of him.

Then again, little of this New Generation (or rather Labour Trek: The Next Generation) stuff seemed awfully persuasive either. Wasn't he there for all of it? Indeed, didn't Ed work for Gordon for the last 15 years? Again, the conventions of the genre demand that we all ignore this but, again, Miliband was trying to break with his own past just as much as he was trying to "move on" from the Tony and Gordon era. Not that this attempt was altogether successful either. Consider this passage:

Tony and Gordon had the courage to take on established attitudes and institutions in Britain.

It is that courage that made us such a successful political force. But our journey must also understand where it went wrong.

Perhaps it's just a coincidence - and one that would not, I suspect, be widely noticed - that this passage contains the titles of Gordon's last book (Courage) and Tony's latest (Journey). Coincidentally or not, the Tony and Gordon era is still with Labour. Indeed, the more Ed talked about being the "new generation" the more one felt he was both protesting too much and a poor echo of the bigger men who'd led Labour to power in the first place.

And can anyone explain what this line, directed to David Cameron, actually means: "We may be of a similar age, but in my values and ideals I am of a different and new generation."

I have no idea. It's true that the coalition needs to make the virtuous case for its restraint and for its localism but that's not enough for Ed Miliband to claim the mantle of "optimist".

So, in summary: not bad but not something to be intimidated by, not least since the best bits were, as I say, the defence of Labour 1997-2004. After that? Not so much.

*The electorate was pretty clear that it wanted a new government.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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