Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on Responsibility in the 21st Century made some necessary general points, but squandered these by the mode in which they were presented. This was a wasted opportunity to set out a way forward and offer hope to many, not least the ‘squeezed middle‘ which he sees as so critical to Labour’s future.
What we got instead was at base no more than a political rewrite with one suspects the continuing aim of establishing Miliband in a new light. But why did he choose to do this in what some might see as dog whistle mode, in such a crude and even perhaps cruel way?
It was crass to point in his first few sentences to a ‘good man’ with a ‘genuine injury’ who nonetheless in Miliband’s opinion (how did he know?) could be working (what sort of job, where?) and thereby not leaving the rest of us to ‘pick up the (financial) pieces’. There were so many other possible starting points, so why start there?
Perhaps the symmetrical appeal of the top and bottom approach – the ‘greedy’ (e.g. Southern Cross) executives and bankers, and the ‘work-shy’ claimants – was just too much of a pull. But it shouldn’t have been. Miliband must have recognised the unpleasant dog whistle behind the words.
I’ve read Ed Miliband’s speech [here] in full and this is some of what he says:
… there is a link between the man on incapacity benefit and those executives at Southern Cross….. these are people who are just not taking responsibility – and the rest of us are left picking up the pieces. It’s not about responsibility to the state, or the government, but responsibility to your neighbours, your friends and many others who you may never meet but who are affected by your actions.
For my party, these two stories point to some hard truths about what people think about us and what we must do if we are to win their trust again. For too many people at the last election …. Labour – a party founded by hard working people for hard working people – was seen, however unfairly, as the party of those ripping off our society.
True, Miliband adds
… we should not demonise people anywhere in society.
I do not accept the Conservative characterisation of those on benefits as being feckless and worthless. The man was I talking about earlier cared about his children and wanted to bring them up right, but the system neither demanded nor encouraged him to do the right thing. We have a responsibility to provide people with opportunities to improve their lives and escape poverty. And we have a responsibility to look after the vulnerable.
But those who can work have a responsibility to take the opportunities available. The same is true of high earners. It is vital that we reward and nurture wealth creation….
And then it’s BUT… but Labour got it wrong; but people see Labour as the party of the take-what-you-can-gets; and so on and so forth. Oh dear.
Of course Ed Miliband also had harsh words for the ConDems:
On the surface, our responsibility to each other is a big concern [also] of theirs and indeed we hear repeated tirades against people on benefits. But because of their values—and true intentions— they cannot build the kind of responsibility that I have been talking about.
Just take their current welfare reform bill. We support their attempts to build on our plans to make those who can work do so….. It undermines childcare support for those seeking work. It punishes people in work who save, denying them the help they currently get through tax credits. It cuts help for the most vulnerable, those living in care homes, who receive support to get out and about. And, it takes away money from those who are dying even though they have contributed to the system all their lives.
None of this will help people show more responsibility. ….. when they talk about the Big Society, and people showing responsibility through volunteering, [the ConDems] don’t seem to get that you can’t volunteer in your local Sure Start centre or library when it has been closed.
These points, Ed, are the critical ones. The real stories are the impacts now of the policies – or perhaps simply strategies for degovernance – which the ConDems are with steely determination rapidly putting in place. This is the ground on which the current battles must be fought.
The historical rewriting of politics is an activity for those with the power, inclination and time to indulge in it. It is not however the issue now causing the most concern to those – including many in the ‘squeezed middle’ – without power and influence.
I have no quarrel with the idea of ensuring fair play and encouraging proper enterprise; far, far from it. Nor do I quarrel with the more decent economists in their analysis now of the global financial crisis – which, let us not forget, no-one anywhere really predicted correctly when it began.
But a long speech by a struggling Leader of the Opposition which begins by pillorising disabled people, caveats or not, and never actually makes a single concrete suggestion about real strategies for change on the ground, is an indulgent, wasted opportunity.
Where was the praise for what the previous government did in fact achieve? Where was the challenge to the ‘unfair’ opinion which Miliband tells us people had of that labour administration? Where was the acknowledgement that Labour was the very purposeful architect of the supportive structures for ‘ordinary people’ which the ConDems are now so keen to undo?
Perhaps this in turn is unfair, but I don’t think Miliband’s speech would have been the one which a working mum or a struggling unemployed dad, middle class or not, would have written. They would surely have chosen to say what Labour now proposes to do in real terms to support their ethos of hard work and responsibility.
This was, instead, a speech written by educated, wealthy men for others of the same ilk. Intellectually clever and, sadly, ultimately vapid.
No wonder the polls still don’t show decent support for Labour, when its own leader uses a valuable opportunity to offer ordinary people hope instead to tell everyone that the last Labour government got things wrong, with barely even a mention of what it got right.