It’s about time our leaders looked to political history for answers. Now that all the incredulity (“wow – he can do it!”) has died away about the delivery of Ed Miliband’s speech, what’s left? At conference and on Twitter people kept saying “yes but where’s the substance”, to which I will always say Labour’s mid-term in opposition. Substance comes later. The mission was to get the country to have a look at Ed. Mission (kind of) accomplished.
Also – actually – there was quite a bit of content in that speech. Apprenticeships and the announcement of a ‘Tech Bacc’ is important for industry to hear – and another vital nod to white working class audiences that have left the party in droves over the last 15 years. The main gripe on that front will be concerns from the Further Education sector that demanding that all students keep going with maths until 18 will increase the failure rate from those who don’t suit academia. Labour will need to work through this detail but it’s still a work in progress. Most of what was proposed looks to be coming from Jon Cruddas and Andrew Adonis, both of whom have clearly streamlined the policy development process and started to produce real results.
The fact that Benjamin Disraeli featured in Miliband’s speech came as quite a surprise. Making a grab for the political centre ground was not something that many New Labour leaning members were expecting. For a start, Progress, the New Labour think tank, had come under increasing attack by the unions during conference week, with rather weak rebuttal from many of the front bench team. The ascendancy of Owen Jones, the left wing commentator, on the fringe also seemed rather suggestive, as did Chuka Umunna’s rather unusual Progress Rally speech at which he talked more about the left-wing Compass think tank (Progress’ deadly enemy) than progressive politics.
All in all it looked as if Labour’s course towards the heart of the party’s soft left was fixed. But as soon as Miliband mentioned Disraeli that all changed. The phrase “One Nation” which Disraeli coined, has been associated with the Conservative Party for decades. That land grab for the centre ground is a very very important signal. Even if Ed does march with the unions in this month’s TUC action against austerity, New Labourites know there’s been a sea-change and this is immensely important. The out-breath of relief whipped through the party – suddenly united through one phrase, One Nation.
The significance of this will not play out in the country, but the outcomes from this little rhetorical flourish could be. A party much more united heads now on the downslope towards the election – still with lots to do but more buoyant than this time last week.