Labour Party Conference 2011 – Liverpool

Posted on October 23, 2011

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Ed Miliband’s first year as leader of the Labour Party has been severely hampered by caution, with his reluctance to define his political ideology frustrating for many. A lack of clear narrative has been largely responsible for his failure to inspire his own party – and indeed the wider public – all of whom are underwhelmed and sceptical about his ability to lead with determination, an absolute necessity for any aspiring Prime Minister. However, his speech at this year’s annual Labour conference may just signal a shift in people’s thinking. He finally began the process of communicating his vision for Britain; a vision which seeks to create a culture of responsibility and fairness in business, putting the brakes on the unrestrained capitalism largely responsible for the unfair society in which we currently live.

The absurd gap between the rich and poor has, in many people’s eyes, gone too far. Wealth is spread extremely unequally in our country, and while rich bankers and businessman have trousered money whilst behaving so recklessly that the entire banking system almost collapsed, the majority of people have been left with little and are now expected to clean up the mess by accepting pay freezes, job losses and various other damaging government cuts. Miliband has called into question the longevity and fairness of the neoliberal agenda which has dominated British and American politics for 30 years, becoming the first leader to attack the model and call for a new economic paradigm; one which places more emphasis on responsibility and integrity in society, and rewards the endeavours of the masses. The days of deregulation are seemingly over in Miliband’s eyes.

Although light on policy detail, these were encouraging themes on which he must now build. If he can concoct a set of clear policy measures which convince the British people that a better society is possible if capitalism is tamed, he may just provide an alternative political agenda that captures the imagination of our society. Thanks to the global financial crisis and the revolutions in the Middle East, the merits of unrestrained capitalism have come under the microscope, and Miliband clearly aims to capitalise on this changing narrative by offering an alternative view of our economic system. The complete failure of the free market system has seen anti-capitalists find their voices, and Miliband has joined in, and although his speech avoided the terms ‘capitalism’ and ‘socialism’, they were evidently part of his thinking.

It may prove to be a risky strategy but Ed Miliband’s speech signals a shift to the left, drastically different from the days of Tony Blair. Miliband has begun a journey towards new centre-left thinking and watching it develop will be intriguing. Will he gain enough support to really tackle economic inequality? Or will his strategy prove too risky, so much so that he abandons his vision? In light of the revelations that the Conservative Party is receiving huge sums of money from businesses working in the finance sector, it makes Ed Miliband’s proposed break from neoliberalism even more welcome to me and I will be supporting him if he continues to fight for a fairer system. If the figures presented by the Bureau of Investigative Journalism are true then it would seem that the Conservative’s are in the pocket of the city, and at a time when the boys in the city have caused so much damage to our country’s economic stability I find that difficult to take.

What Miliband has done is offer the electorate something different – a vision of British society that rewards fairness and ethics in business, giving the clearest indication yet that a leading British politician is ready to move beyond the neoliberal agenda started by Thatcher and Reagan and continued so forcefully by leaders ever since. The idea that reducing regulation in the finance sector helps create wealth held sway after the dire economic situation of the 1970’s but the byproduct of such an approach has seen a winner takes all mentality engulf society – capitalism gone mad.

Inside the conference it was clear that the Blairites were fuming, but for the ordinary party members there was a sense of their party’s traditional values may be returning. Tony Blair’s dogmatic and aggressive pursuit of the neoliberal agenda seems out of touch now, and Miliband’s speech is a clear indication that he is ready to abandon New Labour ideology, preferring instead a fairer economic approach, steeped in socialist values fit for the modern world. OK it’s not Marxism in full flight but there is a socialist agenda at play in Miliband’s ideas and it will be very interesting to see what policy detail he initiates to lift his rhetoric off the page.

It is clear however that if a shift in economic paradigm is to be realised it will take more than one party conference speech to achieve. Miliband must brief his shadow cabinet ministers so that all are in a position to argue and push for change. The AV referendum proved that change is often difficult to substantiate and requires a harmonious and well thought out strategy to make headway. Clearly the severity of the financial crisis has made people acutely aware that the extreme capitalist culture that has gripped the city is dangerous and that it has resulted in an obscene wealth imbalance, so the ground work has been laid. Miliband and his senior ministers must now capitalise on this and push for the seismic change that will reduce the power of fat cat executives and return some prosperity and power to the common people. There seems to be new focus on exactly what the centre-left vision should be – and that is long overdue. Those who wanted something different may just be about to get it.

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Posted in: Politics