Reading or listening to Ed Miliband’s speeches has never been good for my health. Invariably they tend to produce the same responses; first a feeling of instant suffocation accompanied by a spreading numbness through my vital parts as the platitudes mount and words like ‘vision’ and ‘conviction’ and ‘I believe’ echo pointlessly round my brain like pinballs clattering in an intellectual amusement park.
This is usually followed a steep fall in the will to live as the impenetrable jargon rolls sluggishly onward with all the passion of a tube station ‘mind the gap’ announcement, throttling thought and feeling. The longer it goes on, or the longer I continue, the more the hysteria mounts and the more I feel the strong desire to pull out my own eyeballs, before I get to the end and the feeling subsides, leaving leaving only an acrid aftertaste at the realisation of the total bankruptcy of the British political class, and the Labour Party in particular.
So reading Ed Miliband’s Hugo Young lecture wasn’t been the best way to begin the day. But it was nevertheless a salutary and in some ways clarifying experience. It’s a perfect reminder of why the latest opinion polls indicate that support for Labour is dropping and the party is only one point ahead of the Conservatives, despite the horrendous destruction inflicted on British society by the Coalition. And it also confirms once again that behind Miliband’s ‘One Nation’ rebranding, the ongoing neoliberal ‘austerity’ agenda is shared by all the political parties.
In some respects Miliband’s speech could have been written in 1997. There is the same rhetorical feint towards issues of social justice and equality, the same privatization agenda dressed up as widening consumer choice and improving efficiency; the same vacuous commitment ‘ to put more power in the hands of patients, parents and all the users of services.’
As is always the case with Miliband, the speech is weighed down with deadeningly inane and ultimately meaningless slogans and soundbites (‘ voice as well as choice’, ‘Whoever you are, wherever you come from, you are of equal worth’, ‘ Everyone – not just those at the top – should have the chance to shape their own lives’ etc, etc)
Being Miliband also, there is a lot of talk about his ‘vision’ and ‘conviction’ and his willingness to ‘listen’ to ‘the voices of people from all walks of life not just the rich and powerful.’ And what will he do when he’s listened to these voices? Pretty much the same as the Coalition, in fact. After all
‘Clearly the next Labour government will face massive fiscal challenges. Including having to cut spending. That is why it is all the more necessary to get every pound of value out of services. And show we can do more with less.’
So austerity will continue, and public sector workers will be ruled by a Labour government determined to ‘get every pound of value out of services’, a government that is as committed to the privatization ‘reform’ agenda of its predecessors. Because for Miliband there is no difference between ‘ unaccountable power in the private sector’ and the public sector, and he has met ‘as many people frustrated by the unresponsive state as the untamed market.’
And even though Miliband rejects the notion of the ‘monolithic private sector replacing a monolithic public sector’ or that ‘Addressing inequalities of power just means crudely importing principles of the private sector into the public sector’, he nevertheless insists that ‘ Choice, contestability and competition have a role‘.
And therefore ‘ where existing services have consistently under-performed then alternative providers, including private, third sector or mutuals, are important as a way to turn things around.’
And he also criticizes Gove’s free schools program, since
‘When this government sets up Free Schools in places where there are already surplus places supposedly to create more choice, it does so by taking money away from other kids in real need of a school place. And we have a looming school places crisis as a result.’
‘Even more problematically, the promised choice often isn’t real.’
So does Miliband want more free schools with a ‘real’ choice or does he want to stop the program and uphold the principle of state education? He doesn’t say. He rejects the ‘crude application of market principle’ to the public sector. He claims to want to help ‘millions of public servants who work tirelessly, day in day out, often for low wages, to serve the public.’
So what will he do for them? Well he promises to ‘change the assumption about who owns access to information because information is power.’
Er…what? Well he promises for example, that hospital patients will be put in touch with each other through the Internet. Marvellous, what else? He criticizes the Coalition for attempting to close hospitals and breaking its promises. But then he refuses to make any promises about hospital closures himself, because ‘no service can stand still’ and also because that would breach his philosophy of ‘ Not saying change will never happen. But saying no change will happen without people having their say.’
You’re losing me here, Ed. Ah wait, there will be ‘greater local accountability for our schools’ with none other than David Blunkett looking into how this can be done. One example of this accountability will be a ‘parent call-in’, so that ‘a significant number of parents can come together and call for immediate action on standards’ and ‘ intervene if they have serious concerns about how their school is doing, whether it is a free school, academy or local authority school.’
The least you can say about these proposals is that they are not going to make the hearts of a jaundiced electorate beat faster, or bring votes flooding back into the Labour Party. On the contrary the speech suggests once again that Miliband is at heart just another opportunist – a political hologram who wants to be everything to everybody.
The same could be said of the Labour leadership in general. And Miliband’s speech is one more reminder – however incredible it might have seemed a year or so ago – that Labour will lose the next election and that the Conservatives may even win with a majority.
That will be a tragedy, but on the evidence of this speech Labour, and the head boy who wants to be prime minister, do not represent a credible alternative.