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Will Ed Miliband be a Transformational Leader? Not on This Evidence

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Does Ed Miliband intend - as he and a number of commentators have suggested - to call time on three decades of neoliberalism and establish a new long-term political consensus, as Thatcher and Attlee did before him? In the absence of any firm policy detail, the only way to answer that question is to examine the language Labour has used to critique government policy and set out its own position. Any political paradigm shift requires, in the first instance, for dominant narratives, common assumptions and conventional ways of understanding the issues to be subjected to fundamental challenge. Without first establishing that the old ways of thinking were misconceived, new approaches cannot be brought in to take their place. Yet the evidence so far does not suggest that Miliband's Labour is willing to take even this crucial first step.

Start with Labour's position on the Tory benefits cap. The headline response to the "strivers versus shirkers" theme was that a real terms cut in social security would effectively be a "Strivers Tax" because it hits claimants who are in work. The basic dichotomy - working "strivers" and unemployed "shirkers" - was thereby effectively endorsed. For anyone hoping for the imminent demise of Thatcherism, the sight of a Labour Party unwilling to challenge the neo-Victorian lie that unemployment is caused by wanton idleness, even five years into an economic depression, will have been somewhat less than encouraging.

What of Labour's jobs guarantee for the long-term unemployed? A great idea in principle, except the guarantee does not extend to those jobs being secure, permanent or paid at or above the Living Wage. Miliband's broad diagnosis that, rather than government redistributing to compensate for the iniquities of the market system, the rules of the game themselves should be changed so that wealth is "predistributed" more equally through good and decently paid jobs, is both timely and correct. But fine words are of little practical value when one of Labour's first new jobs policies drives a coach and horses through those basic principles.

Miliband's recent speech on immigration was, superficially, a little more encouraging, reflecting a sense of ease and contentment with the cosmopolitan nation that Britain has become. But substantively, the way he framed the issue simply reflected the real 'political correctness' of the day: Britain has had its problems with racism and xenophobia in the past, but thanks to our heroic national character these have now been overcome, leaving only legitimate concerns about immigration, caused in part by the failure of immigrants themselves to properly integrate with local communities. There was not so much as a suggestion that ignorance and prejudice may play some part in fuelling the hostility faced by this generation of immigrants, as was the case with the last. There was no mention of the relentless xenophobia of the gutter press, no mention of the current threat posed by the "English Defence League", and no mention of continued harassment of black youths by the police, to take some examples. What place will today's victims of bigotry have in the "One Nation" envisaged by a Labour leader so anxious to placate anti-immigrant opinion?

Perhaps the lowest point of Miliband's leadership was his opening of a June 2011 speech with the story of how he had met a man on incapacity benefit who he was "convinced" could find a job, and who was "just not taking responsibility" while "other families on his street are working all hours just to get by." This assessment was offered without evidence, knowledge or medical expertise, mirroring the many prejudicial judgements made against disabled people, especially those with "invisible disabilities", both by their more ill-informed neighbours and by the right-wing press. Make no mistake. This cruel ignorance leads directly to real, physical and emotional suffering. That Miliband chose to pander to that prejudice rather than to defend the maligned and the vulnerable gives us some indication of the character of his leadership.

For the New Labour generation of politicians, intellectual conformity and acceptance of Thatcherite conventional wisdom was seen as the ultimate test of seriousness. But if Miliband really wants to be a transformational leader (of which I am sceptical), then these are precisely the wrong instincts to have. Put simply, if he doesn't have the nerve to pick tough rhetorical fights now, then he has no chance of winning the hard policy battles later on. If anything, the more he accepts the terms of debate as he finds them, the more entrenched the status quo will become.