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Ed Miliband's Speech: Blairism Redux

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Ed Miliband's attempt to rebrand the Labour Party as One Nation Labour in his conference speech in Manchester met with the near universal approval of political commentators from both right and left of the political spectrum. The pages of the mainstream press the day after were bursting with tribute to the Labour leader's speech, almost to the point where you could be forgiven for mistaking it for the first words spoken by Nelson Mandela's upon his release from Robben Island after three decades of incarceration.

This is Miliband the man rather than the policy wonk the nation has been reliably informed, a man bursting with moral rectitude, passion, conviction, and determination. No more New Labour, no more Old Labour, this is One Nation Labour, a party that will take on vested interests and govern on behalf of no sectional interest but the entire nation.

It was a speech long on windy rhetoric and short on policy, full of praise for the Olympic spirit and the unity of 1945, when the then Labour government created the welfare state and initiated a national house building programme to alleviate the postwar housing crisis. However, unlike that great reforming social democratic Labour government, what Miliband's speech outlined for the conference delegates and the country at large was reheated Blairism, confirming that in the struggle for the soul of the Labour Party after his election as leader of the party in 2010, the Blairites have won.

What the speech did not didn't do as a result was place Labour squarely on the side of those suffering at the sharp end of the coalition's austerity programme, which amounts to the transfer of wealth from the poorest section of society to the wealthiest. This is reflected in the support that Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, have articulated for continuing George Osborne's public sector pay freeze. This particular policy fails on moral, political, and economic grounds. Moral because it amounts to making the poorest in society pay for the greed of the rich and the banks in causing the economic chaos which has swept the country. Political because it will not succeed in reenergising Labour long maligned and neglected base: the 5 million votes lost to the party between 1997 and 2010. And finally economic because at a time when the economy is screaming out for the reinjection of demand, an across-the-board public sector pay freeze will only stifle it, causing an inevitable knock-on effect in the private sector and thus deepening the recession.

Playing it safe by planting Labour's colours in the centre ground vacated by a rightward lurching Tory-led coalition is to Labour's strategy going forward. Despite the liberal chorus of approval the speech earned, it is a strategy that will do little to restore hope to millions of people desperate for a Labour government to return to its social democratic and redistributive roots. In this regard the most astonishing part of the speech came when the Labour leader referred to people living in poverty as a sectional interest.

When it comes to the unions Ed Miliband made it clear that under his leadership they will continue to be kept at arms length. Describing them as just another of those sectional interests he seemed fixated on, he was playing to the liberal press, big business, and the international markets, assuring them that under his government Thatcher's anti-trade union laws, currently the most draconian of any in Europe, will remain firmly in place. What he conveniently left out of his speech when it comes to the unions is that the reason the Tories and Lib Dems have been able to play the public sector off against the private sector is due to the better terms and conditions enjoyed by a unionised public sector workforce in comparison to its non-unionised private sector counterpart. This is no accident. It reaffirms the role the unions have played in providing working people with dignity, a decent standard of living, and defence against the same economic forces that have brought us the current and ongoing chaos.

Yes, he attacked and threatened the banks; but significantly not with public ownership and a role for the state in directing sorely needed investment in the economy. Breaking them up will protect savers deposits, but those deposits are shrinking by the day as a consequence of government inaction when it comes to bolstering economic demand.

Overall, Ed Miliband's achievement with this speech was in affirming that the tradition of style over substance that has come to define politics in Britain will not be interrupted if he's elected prime minister. Being able to speak for an hour without notes is nothing to be proud of when the words spoken amount to a funeral address over the corpse of social democracy.