Saturday, May 15, 2010

The unfairness of Ed Miliband

Since the election there have been a slew of former Labour ministers keen to tell us that Labour needs to change by listening to the voters and their concerns. The speeches and articles are sprinkled with anecdotes from conversations that these ex-ministers had with voters in their constituencies. In many cases it is obvious that going and talking to voters had been a rather novel activity.

Ed Miliband's speech today, in which he announced himself as a candidate for Labour leader, gave two particularly obnoxious examples of this genre. On immigration, he announced that:

"But the truth is that immigration is a class issue.

If you want to employ a builder it’s good to have people you can take on at lower cost, but if you are a builder it feels like a threat to your livelihood.

And we never had an answer for the people who were worried about it.

When competition is driving down your wages and your pension rights, saying globalisation is good for you and for the economy as a whole is an example of what I mean about becoming a technocrat. Because it is a good answer for economists but it is no answer for the people of Britain.

So, for that voter in my constituency, and many others, we need to rediscover our sense of progressive mission."

And on what he charmingly calls "people at the other end of society":

"And if we didn’t do enough to enforce fairness at the top, nor did we do enough to enforce it at the bottom.

I am a great defender of the welfare state. It is what a civilised society depends upon.

But the night before the election I was in my constituency and I met a guy who had done well under Labour.

And he said, look, I am not voting for you.

I’ve voted Labour all my life but I am working all the hours that God sends to make a decent living, and yet, he felt, that there are people down the street who could work but were not doing so.

Now we know we did act on this issue, but perhaps too late.

We have hard thinking to do

We need to re-found the welfare state: not just on need, but also on the original Beveridge mission of responsibility and contribution."


Firstly, Miliband's responses to these concerns are waffle and drivel (what's a "sense of progressive mission" when it is at home? How should we "re-found the welfare state"?) But more than that, he treats migrant workers and unemployed people as unPeople, unworthy of mention except as a problem who need to be dealt with by the Labour Party adopting different policies.

In the cause, ironically, of "fairness".

This is the Margaret Hodge c. 2006 approach, where an out of touch government minister goes and visits the little people in the provinces for the first time in many years and finds that they hold different opinions from people at Westminster, and announces that something must be done.

It is not "fair" for wannabe Labour leaders to repeat right-wing rhetoric and call for their party to make life even harder for migrant workers and unemployed people, and as Barking in 2006 showed, it isn't effective either. "Addressing concerns" about immigration led to Labour ministers passing laws to lock children up and force people to leave Britain through the threat of starvation. Under any conceivable definition of a "progressive mission" we need a different and more humane approach.

Miliband should take his own advice, and learn from Labour's successful campaigns in the recent elections. In the areas where Labour were successful, they didn't spend their time going on about the need to change immigration policy or welfare reform. Instead they mobilised volunteers - from all sections of the community including migrants and unemployed people - to help people, take up and sort out problems, and do effective grassroots campaigning all year round, with hard-working candidates rooted in their communities.

Labour needs a leader who understands that this is what is needed, and who is committed to making sure that we campaign in every community and that our policies nationally reflect and draw on the experience of people at the grassroots. That's the way to make Britain fairer.


At 5:55 pm , Blogger Chris Brooke said...

I wonder whether you're being scrupulously fair to Ed Miliband here, Don P.

I write this as someone who quite strongly prefers him to any plausible alternative candidate for the Labour leadership, so I should preface my remarks by saying that I hope you're wrong in this post, and that he isn't going to try to win the leadership by pandering to the "very real concerns" of the "white working class", i.e., by running hard to the right on questions of race and immigration. If it becomes clear that this is what he's doing, then I'll drop him like a stone.

But I have a more generous reading of the immigration discussion than the one you're offering here. The point isn't so much to soften up his listeners for a move to the right on immigration; it's to make the point that if Labour is committed to an open-door policy on East European migrant labour (as, through EU membership, we must be, and a good thing too), then more thought needs to go in to the question of how to present that policy on the doorstep, to the kinds of people he describes.

And the point he makes about class isn't a bad one. For lots of middle class people, the felt effects of immigrant labour are cheap cleaners and plumbers and builders; for lots of working-class people, by contrast, they may be lower wages and less secure working conditions.

And Ed's complaint here (I hope) is that when middle-class politicians prattle on about "diversity" and "globalisation" and so on, however ideologically attractive or technocratically-correct their views may be, the words don't have the impact they'd like them to have on the doorstep. And that's something to be thinking about.

(Though it's true that he spoils the point somewhat by wittering on in terms of "progressive mission" - which ought to join "diversity" and "globalisation" and suchlike in the dustbin of history - and he also goes wrong by saying "it is no answer for the people of Britain", which is an annoyingly populist turn of phrase.)

At 9:22 pm , Blogger Chardonnay Chap said...

Chris, I understand why you prefer EM to all other plausible candidates, although I think Darling is both credible and plausible. (Disclosure: I'm an ex-Labour member, and have no plans to rejoin, so I'm not voting.)

First, I'll disagree with Chris's reading of the post. I don't read Don as suggesting that EM is going to try to win the leadership by pandering to the "very real concerns" of the "white working class". What I think he means is that "going and talking to voters had been a rather novel activity" for EM, and he's decided, naively, misguidedly, or whatever to repeat the first reason that an ex-Labour voter articulated to him. It's not that he believes this, or has any plans to implement it, it's that he thinks the voters can be sampled so easily, and he's trying the Blairite trick of saying what he thinks the audience wants to hear. (It's at times like this that I admire Blair; when you see others imitating him, you appreciate how good he was at what he did. EM has definitely picked the wrong message for the Fabian society, and I'd be very surprised if there are many Labour activists - the kind likely to read speeches by potential leaders - who agree with what he said.)

Secondly, however, I do agree with Chris's positive take on EM's speech. Yes, he's right that immigration is seen in different ways, but I think Don's point stands: he should already have known that. He shouldn't just visit his constituency the day before the election, he should go there often. He should meet constituents. As for "presenting" immigration more positively - if I take that as spin, then I think the party's had enough of that; if Chris means (as I'm sure he does) that Labour should explain its policies better, then of course I agree. (They should also bounce the Tories into agreeing too. After all, EU membership is likely to be a fact for a long time yet, and Eastern Europe immigration is therefore non-negotiable: other parties may complain, but they have no strategy to prevent it.)

Shorter me: the likely candidates are pretty unappealing generally. They still seem to think of themselves as 'Blairite' or 'Brownite' and I don't see that appealing to voters at all. Candidates need to connect both with voters and with grassroots members much more than they're doing, AND THEN start to consider their personal manifestos. If the party rushes into a leadership election, it'll regret it. They don't even seem to understand why they lost. Yet it's quite simple: the party in power when a country goes into recession will always lose the next election. Blair won elections when house prices were increasing. I admit saying that can come over as "It wasn't our fault" so it's not wise to put it as baldly as that, but that's what happened. Where did Beveridge talk about 'responsibility'? (I'm not a historian. I really don't know; but it sounds more like Blair than any predecessor.)

At 9:07 am , Blogger donpaskini said...

Hi Chris,

On the point about class - for lots of working-class people there might be reduced wages and job opportunities, for millions of other working-class people there have been increased wages and job opportunities.

Discussing this issue as "middle class people who benefit from immigration vs working class people who don't" is buying into a traditional right-wing argument.

And as CC says, worth noting the differences in approach between politicians who go and speak to their constituents once every 5 years rather than every week. Ed M's speech reads very like an example of the former, not the latter.

At 1:00 pm , Blogger Chris Brooke said...

Just for clarification, Don P, when you say "for lots of working-class people there might be reduced wages and job opportunities, for millions of other working-class people there have been increased wages and job opportunities", is this taking the working-class globally (i.e., to repeat the point Hayek makes against the socialists in the closing bit of The Road to Serfdom), or nationally (i.e. with respect to working-class people entitled to vote in UK elections)? And, if the former, do you have an opinion about the latter?

At 4:19 pm , Blogger donpaskini said...

"And, if the former, do you have an opinion about the latter?"

Both - of obvious benefit to people born in other countries who have come to work here, as well as Brits who have gone to work abroad. Plus people who have got jobs in the public sector (or in the private sector on government contracts) made possible by higher government revenues. etc. etc.

I thought this was a good point:

At 8:02 am , Anonymous Anonymous said...


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