Yesterday’s speech by Ed Miliband was undoubtedly well-delivered and the content was interesting too. As a One Nation Conservative, I’m happy to welcome any convert to the cause but his adoption of the One Nation label raises lots of questions.
Before I start picking holes in what he said though, there were three passages I really liked.
The first, about responsibility and holding vested interests to account, would appeal to any Conservative reformer. Mr Miliband accepted that:
“New Labour, despite its great achievements, was too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top and too timid about the accountability of those with power. In One Nation, responsibility goes all the way to the top of society. The richest in society have the biggest responsibility to show responsibility to the rest of our country. And I’ve got news for the powerful interests in our country: in One Nation no interest, from Rupert Murdoch to the banks, is too powerful to be held to account”.
The other two passages were about education. He talked about people he was at school with who didn’t do so well in their exams:
“Think about all those kids who had talent and ability, great talent and ability. School just didn’t offer them enough. It was true twenty five years ago and it is even more true today”.
That’s an admirably honest, though damning, indictment of the educational record of the last Labour Government.
And he talked about qualifications, making two important points – the first about the importance of rigour; the second about not regarding high-quality vocational education as second class:
“For a long time, our party has been focused on getting 50% of young people into university. I believe that was right. But now it’s time to put our focus on the forgotten 50% who do not go to university. Here’s the choice that I want to offer to that 14 year old who is not academic. English and maths to 18 because rigour in the curriculum matters. But courses that engage them and are relevant to them. Work experience with employers. And then culminating at the age of 18 with a new gold standard qualification so they know when they are taking that exam they have a gold standard vocational qualification, a new Technical Baccalaureate. A qualification to be proud of. You know, we’ve got to change the culture of this country friends. We can’t be a country where vocational qualifications are seen as second class”.
But, as I said, the speech also raised lots of questions.
1. Rhetoric vs record
Many of the things Mr Miliband talked about – inflation-busting increases in train fares and the price of petrol for example – are the result of policies he supported when he was a Minister. If he means what he said, why didn’t he oppose them when he had the chance?
Even worse, some of the things he said conflict with things he has done since he’s been Leader of the Labour Party. Here’s a few examples:
“With millions of people feeling that hard work and effort are not rewarded, we just can’t succeed as a country”
I couldn’t agree more. And let’s be clear: people are right – often hard work and effort aren’t rewarded. So why does Mr Miliband oppose putting a cap on how much any family can receive in benefits?
“You can’t be a One Nation Prime Minister if all you do is seek to divide the country”
Again, I couldn’t agree more. I might add that you can’t be a One Nation Mayor if all you do is seek to divide Londoners against each other. It appears that Douglas Alexander agrees. So why did Mr Miliband support Ken Livingstone?
“It [the system] doesn’t work for them [people struggling to make ends meet] but for the cosy cartels and powerful interests that government hasn’t cut down to size”
I agree that this is often the case. One powerful interest that has a lot of influence over the Labour Party are trade unions – they make significant donations and we know that Labour spokesmen often consult them about what line to take. What does the speech mean for this relationship?
Mr Miliband was honest enough to admit that:
“there will be many cuts that this Government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to...and in the next Parliament we will have tough settlements for the public services and that will make life harder for those who use them and harder for those who work in them”.
But it’s easy to say these things; it’s much harder to make the tough choices about where the cuts fall. This speech didn’t tell us anything about how Mr Miliband would make those choices?
A One Nation politician is happy to work with people from other parties where there is shared ground. I’ve already said that I liked much of what Mr Miliband had to say on education. But rather than welcome the fact that Michael Gove is doing many of the things he talked about – restoring rigour, ensuring that pupils who haven’t reached a minimum level in English and maths continue to study it until they are 18, implementing the Wolf review into vocational education – as well as massively extending Labour’s academy program, he chose to attack him and, worse, misrepresent him (claiming that Michael wants to “bring back two-tier academic exams” when he is doing the exact opposite, getting rid of the current division of the GCSE into foundation and higher tiers; that he has “contempt” for vocational qualifications; and that he has “nothing to say” about education to 18). Why?
Towards the end of the speech, Mr Miliband said:
“I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In One Nation, in my faith, inequality matter”.
What matters is whether someone who starts at the bottom can make it to the top if they work hard and try their best – in other words, equality of opportunity. But that’s not what Mr Miliband is talking about. He is saying what matters is the gap between rich and poor. In other words, even if we lived in a perfect meritocracy, where people’s success depended solely on their effort, he believes in redistribution not to fund public services but for its own sake. How is that One Nation?
Answers on a postcard...