This is, I know, a statement of the obvious but Ed Miliband is no Teddy Roosevelt. There are two reasons to be thankful for this. First, TR was really a ghastly man; secondly, if Ed Miliband were able to muster a quarter of Roosevelt’s brio he’d be faring rather better than he is. In the present circumstances, the opposition should be thumping the government every day.
Granted, this requires more credibility than either Mr Miliband or Mr Balls can boast but the fact remains that a) George Osborne’s economic hopes have been vanquished by events and b) there is little substantive difference between his proposals and those made by Alistair Darling before the general election last year. Events have pushed the government towards accepting a timetable they once thought impossibly timid. (Of course, matters are complicated for the Eds by the inconvenient fact they opposed Darling’s approach too, albeit from the left not the right.)
Nevertheless, Ed’s "relaunch" speech today was an opportunity. Like Pete, I think it flopped miserably. One has the sense that Miliband has some useful political instincts but utterly lacks any ability to put his point across with the clarity and forcefulness demanded by both the times and the requirements of opposition. If ever there was a time for a populist, anti-corporate politics this is it. There is a sense, particularly amongst middle and lower-middle class strivers, that something, somewhere has somehow gone rather badly awry. The game is no longer fair enough for purpose. (This sense exists cross the western world, not just in the UK.) The excesses of the financial sector are a hefty chunk of this but far from the only contributing factor.
And yet Miliband seems unable to make a convincing argument about any of this. Partly, this is because he has few plausible alternatives; partly because I suspect he may know his instincts are some way to the left of the public’s and this forces him to trim and temper and dilute and simper and other bad things. And part of it is because he has some of the worst speech-writers in the history of political rhetoric. Today’s speech was the usual guff-stuffed tripe. Consider this straw man:
There are some who say that fairness is a luxury we cannot afford in tough times. That it is inevitable that this country must become: More unfair. More unequal. More unjust. That fairness is something for good times, and nothing more.
Who says this? No-one. Miliband is in an empty room arguing with an imaginary political opponent. No wonder he looks odd.
It got worse. Miliband’s "new approach" is no more than this:
[We need] three new ways of delivering fairness in difficult times. 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.
Golly! Like me, you’ll be marvelling at the political bravery on display here. A hint to Ed and his speechwriters: when your "new approach" contains, in its executive summary, nothing with which any of your opponents would disagree you have not actually found a "new approach" at all.
I dare say Miliband’s remaining supporters (just 20% of folk think he’s doing a braw job) will say it’s no fair that David Cameron is talking about curbing "excessive" corporate pay and slapping a levy upon the banks. Be that as it may, that’s the way it is. The key thing is that Cameron, however incongruously, seems marginally more credible on all this.
Rhetoric and vigour and how you frame an argument still matters and Ed remains hopelessly deficient in these concerns. Searching for a target he alights on the six big energy companies. Does he denounce them? No he does not. Instead there is this:
Take energy. Everyone here today who has enjoyed Christmas and New Year with their family has had the central heating on. But it’s expensive.
Still, the logic of Miliband’s speech was clear: every "tough choice" is made at the expense of any corporate interest. The laws of supply and demand should play no part in the setting of train prices, for instance. That’s fine (if odd) but if you’re going to make cartels and conglomerates the enemy you must at least denounce them with some vigour or passion. Being scolded by Ed Miliband is akin to being lashed by a vegan gerbil.
To make an unfair* comparison, contrast this with Teddy Roosevelt’s approach. In his famous "New Nationalism" speech, Roosevelt declared:
I believe in shaping the ends of government to protect property as well as human welfare. Normally, and in the long run, the ends are the same; but whenever the alternative must be faced, I am for men and not for property, as you were in the Civil War. I am far from underestimating the importance of dividends; but I rank dividends below human character. Again, I do not have any sympathy with the reformer who says he does not care for dividends. Of course, economic welfare is necessary, for a man must pull his own weight and be able to support his family. I know well that the reformers must not bring upon the people economic ruin, or the reforms themselves will go down in the ruin. But we must be ready to face temporary disaster, whether or not brought on by those who will war against us to the knife. Those who oppose reform will do well to remember that ruin in its worst form is inevitable if our national life brings us nothing better than swollen fortunes for the few and the triumph in both politics and business of a sordid and selfish materialism.
This is the sort of stuff Miliband wants to say. Unfortunately for him, he lacks the language with which to say it. Of course, Barack Obama also claims to be inspired by TR’s Osawatomie address. Again, perhaps it is unfair to compare Miliband’s speech today with Obama’s own recent speech in Osawatomie but if so that is largey because expectations for Miliband are so low that we should not believe that his team of advisors are even capable of reading Obama’s speeches and learning something useful from them.
You may not agree with everything Obama said in Kansas. That is not the issue. What matters is that his speech was at least coherent and detailed. It had a sweep and a vision that deserves respect even if you disagree with many of its specifics. It did not just whimper that electricity is too expensive.
There’s not much that’s really new in politics. Miliband may have an idea of what the important issues might be but until he finds a way to speak about them in ways that make people listen he will continue to struggle. I fancy that he’s an uneasy populist, not entirely comfortable with Torch & Pitchfork politics but these should be boom times for that kind of bruising, opportunistic oppositionalism. If Miliband cannot thrive or even find a way of framing his arguments now then what hope does he have if or when there’s cheeerier economic news?
If this was a relaunch then I fancy the good ship Miliband will perform poorly in its new sea trials and will be returning to dry dock for fresh repairs sooner rather than later.
*Unfair because political rhetoric has changed and Miliband would look daft if he tried to give a TR speech. Still, the point is worth making: