Apart from agreeing that their leader has now proven himself one of the greatest orators since Cicero, another question upon which there would surely have been universal agreement at Labour conference would be ‘Obama or Romney?’. Yet despite the antipathy of the ‘People’s Party’ to all things Republican this week has seen an interesting parallel between Mr Miliband and Mr Romney.
Despite the rise of extremism in many troubled parts of Europe, it remains the case that elections are won in the middle ground. However, it is in the nature of political parties – something exacerbated by their shrinking base – that they contain a preponderance of hard liners and true believers. Every leader who wants to win power has therefore to somehow juggle the Party’s desire for ideological purity with their need to show the public, first, that they are moderate and, second, that when it comes to a choice they will put the needs of their country as a whole ahead of the aspirations of Party activists.
In this trade off a critical variable is the desire for, and likelihood of, electoral victory. So, in relation to the former, it took Labour four defeats and the Conservatives three before Party activists were willing to give their leader sufficient freedom of manoeuvre to appeal directly to the centre ground. But whatever the appetite to win, if a leader doesn’t look like he has much chance of victory he has less authority and fewer grounds upon which to force compromise on the Party.
As someone who sees a willingness to tackle Party prejudices not as only as a critical leadership attribute but vital to good government, I tend to agree with those commentators who give Ed Miliband’s speech a less than complete endorsement, despite its impressive delivery. Labour’s leader did a great job in inspiring his Party but he also left the door open for the Conservatives next week to say that while the Labour and LibDem leaders focussed on making their Parties feel good, they alone are willing to do the unpopular work necessary to make the country succeed.
But the electoral timetable provides a defence of Miliband’s approach. After all he has two more conferences and nearly three more years before the next election. He can reasonably argue that his Party is now so united and so in love with him that he has provided the best possible foundation to move on to the next and most difficult part of his process; gaining his Party’s agreement to an austerity manifesto. In making such an argument Miliband can point across the Atlantic.
Until his resounding success in Wednesday’s first Presidential debate Romney was repeatedly vacillating between what he needed to say to have a chance of winning and what the Republican party would allow him to say. The pressure from the Tea Party, and its fellow travellers, for ideological purity more than balanced the desire to win, especially as opinion polls showed winning to be unlikely. But on Wednesday Romney became a contender and within 48 hours he is signalling a move to the centre ground by apologising for the impression given by his disparaging comments about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax.
Whatever one’s preference for the outcome of the Presidential election, it would surely be much better for America if its election were a genuine debate about policy rather than a polarised slanging match. Similarly, it would probably a good thing if the next UK election is fought between credible alternatives (something which has been the exception rather than the norm over the last thirty years).
I doubt whether Ed and Mitt will be having a congratulatory ‘phone
conversation this weekend, but when it comes to their own leadership challenge, they might find they have surprising amount in common.
Perhaps no six words have done as much damage to sensible policy making as these: ‘beer and sandwiches at Number Ten’. Not only does the phrase encapsulate an idea of social partnership as a cosy labour movement cabal, but as it was coined in the seventies (ironically, as an attack by Labour’s Harold Wilson on Downing Street meetings hosted by Conservative PM Edward Heath) it is also linked to a time of trade unions overreaching their legitimacy and ultimately creating the context for Margaret Thatcher to hasten their long decline.
Whether we use the label social partnership, industrial partnership or corporatism, the UK’s aversion to this way of governing policy and organisations has held pretty firm ever since – which is a pity. For not only have just such arrangements survived and indeed thrived in other countries (most notably Germany) but there are strong reasons to believe that some form of modern partnership is exactly what we need right now.
In part this is because at times of adversity we need to find ways to share out and legitimise hard choices, but it is also in line with the steadily growing enthusiasm among some Coalition ministers for a form of industrial policy, an enthusiasm which was evident again today in Vince Cable’s speech. A third ingredient may be a general shift in boardrooms away from free market fundamentalism, as witnessed this morning by news that Barclays plans to get out of the tax ‘structuring’ business. I even think the great British public – most of whom were either not alive for, or don’t remember, the Social Contract of the mid 1970s – would be receptive to the idea that Government could work with business and employee organisations to develop a plan for long term economic renewal, and that all companies (not just a few mutuals) should be encouraged to engage employees as partners in shared enterprise.
The barrier to this possibility getting a serious airing takes me to the one of the problems with political authority, which I may touch on in my RSA annual lecture tomorrow. David Cameron may share his party’s long running hostility to any sniff of corporatism, but were he to float such an idea, even in the most modest of terms, he would no doubt be shot down in flames by true blue forces in his own party and among the opinion formers of the Telegraph, Spectator and Conservative Home. I suspect many in the public would admire the PM if he reached out beyond his natural supporters (this was after all the style of his early leadership) but, as last week’s reshuffle suggested, this is not a fight he relishes right now.
For Ed Miliband the problem is that industrial partnership is only possible with intelligent, moderate and authoritative trade union leaders and if such beasts exist they are doing a great job of hiding it. The TUC is the closest we have to the kind of trade union organisation which could participate usefully in developing a tripartite industrial strategy but the Congress has always been weak in comparison to its largest members, something which trade union consolidation has only exacerbated. Miliband could, of course, call for trade union leaders to wake up, smell the coffee and act in the interests of the country and their members, not just an activist core. Again the voters would probably be impressed but, like Mr Cameron, Mr Miliband probably doesn’t have the appetite or security for this kind of battle with his ‘allies’.
There are, of course, perfectly intellectually robust arguments against any form of corporatism, but perhaps the most urgent reason at least to discuss some new economic partnership is the sense in post- Olympic Britain (grab it now, it won’t last long) that we can still be a nation which pulls together. That the narrow and rigid base of our major political parties makes such a debate so unlikely is not unconnected to the reasons public faith in politicians is at an all-time low.
Yesterday the Prime Minister and leader of the opposition, being the clever types they are, took it in turns to put each other on the defensive. Mr Cameron attacked Mr Miliband over Labour’s stance on public sector strikes while Mr Miliband condemned Mr Cameron on youth unemployment. Business as usual in Westminster, meanwhile, out in the world the gloom deepens.
In the short term there is the unfolding European sovereign debt crisis (today saw yet another failure by European leaders to agree a credible collective strategy). Major British banks are still highly vulnerable to default so any idea that the UK will be sheltered from the collapse of the Euro is almost certainly wrong. In the medium term we have no realistic path back to the kind of growth that would enable us to manage down national, corporate and family debt without years of pain or the ever present risk of a slide back into recession. As he prepares for his autumn statement next week, George Osborne’s scope to make choices may be restricted to deciding in what order to put the bad news.
Over twenty years as a policy analyst and commentator I have tended to disagree with people who claim public services are getting worse. The problem is usually that they are not getting better as fast as we would like, or that they have fallen behind comparable services in other sectors. But now we are beginning to see genuine deterioration. This is not just in those non-statutory areas, like libraries, youth and community services which have borne the brunt of local government cuts. Monday’s EHRC report on domiciliary care was just the latest in a string of damning reports. The prospects for vulnerable older people are clearly deteriorating and there is no foreseeable reason to expect this process to stop. Whatever steps are taken to improve public service efficiency and engage volunteers in the community, further years of austerity are likely to see this decline in service levels and social outcomes spread to other core areas of provision.
In the face of the crisis and the danger that, in time, declining living standards and services will lead to social conflict and even political extremism, we desperately need national leadership on a different plane to that on offer right now. Leadership to give us hope and a sense of national purpose. Leadership to challenge us – from the self-serving overpaid company executive to the apathetic unemployed youngster and every one of us between – to be part of a national mobilisation to protect our most vulnerable citizens, keep our communities going and show the creativity, collaboration and risk taking which must be the foundation for economic success. Imagine a society in which almost everyone had a story to tell about what they were doing to help the nation pull through.
But when it comes to political rhetoric we are all so jaded that this leadership will not come from conventional oratory. Our political leaders need to go miles outside their comfort zone. In particular they need to recognise that political point scoring and playing to their own dwindling band of party loyalists is not only irrelevant but an abdication of the duty of public service. If they don’t we might eventually reach the same depressing conclusion as the Greeks and Italians and seek to replace politicians with technocrats.
Like all my blog posts this is no more than shouting in the wind. Perhaps it’s time I took my daily pill and had a nice lie down. It’s not as if I know concretely what it would take for our leaders to convince us we should respect and respond to them. But I think I would know if I saw any sign of it happening. It might start with greater humility, more recognition of the inherent uncertainty right now in all policy options, a willingness to work across party lines, the courage to appeal concretly and directly to the nation even at the risk such an appeal will initially fall on deaf ears.
Every politician I know says they came into politics to serve and to make a difference. That’s why I tend to defend the political class even when it’s friendless, like over expenses. But desperate times call for desperate measures. Over the years, I have heard so many politicians say they wish they could break out of the binds of intra-party trade-offs, inter-party adversarialism and media management and find a way of connecting with the public.
If not now, when?
The RSA has Labour leader Ed Miliband speaking tomorrow on the NHS. His team has kindly let me see a draft of the speech and I am impressed. It is, of course, a critique of the Coalition’s reforms, but rather then being an oppositional or ideological diatribe it is much more thoughtful and balanced. As I guess I am likely to post tomorrow on how the speech goes, I thought I would briefly now add to my thoughts last week on corporate responsibility.
Some of the comments on last week’s posts were pretty scathing about the idea that major corporations – like PepsiCo or Kingfisher – can really commit to doing business in a more progressive way. Maybe I am being a sap, but I do think some retailers are waking up to the idea that it is not a sustainable long-term business plan to encourage people to do things that are bad for them, society or the planet.
Building a second assumption on the first, my sense is also that while businesses that sell stuff to consumers may be open to new ideas, businesses that invest money on our behalf – in other words financial institutions – show few signs of a similar openness to change.
Many people argue that the short-termism of financiers is inimical to a more responsible way of thinking about business development. At last week’s FRSA Profit with Purpose event I was told that while ethical funds are growing, and while those funds avoid investing in certain industries (tobacco, arms etc), they are otherwise just as short term as just about everything else in the market.
So why is that those investing our life insurance, pension funds, unit trusts etc are so unreconstructed? And why is that our desire to know out retailers are responsible isn’t matched by our aspirations for our fund managers? Here – from a position of substantial ignorance (which is a bit worrying as my lecture on ‘Big Society business’ is only two months away) – are three possible reasons:
1. Structural: the way investment happens through funds which combine billions of pounds from millions of investors with shares in thousands of companies means that stewardship and responsibility are almost impossible to exercise, both from the point of view of investment managers and ordinary citizens.
2. Cultural: As we have seen vividly before and since the banking crash, those who are senior in the financial sector seem utterly impervious to any sense of responsibility or any concern about public opinion. Perhaps talking about social responsibility with financiers is like talking about feminism at the local rugby club.
3. Money and the mind. There have been experiments that suggest people simply need to be prompted by the word ‘money’ to become less likely to display altruistic motivation. Perhaps when we think about goods and where they come from and what they do we are able to use our critical faculties, but when it comes to the idea of using money to make more money those faculties get switched off.
If any or all of these theories are true there isn’t much room for optimism. The way modern capitalism – and perhaps all capitalism – works the investing tail wags the productive dog. Even if there are good intentions in many global boardrooms they may rarely get turned into authentically different ways of doing business.
Being in the right makes us feel good, but it also makes it harder to resolve differences.
This is now the third year of RSA fringe meetings at the major party conferences. Every event we have put on has been packed out and all have been very well received. I have lost count of the number of people who have said from the floor, or at the end, that our meetings are more interesting than the average run of the mill event. The events have also been pretty successful in generating media interest which is very impressive given all the other distractions (I often say to people who hope to generate publicity at party conferences ‘there is one thing harder than looking for a needle in a haystack – looking for a needle in a pile of needles). This morning the Today programme contained two packages which came out of our event.
Part of the secret lies in our partnerships. This year we have the kind support of The Social Investment Business, which brings new funding into the third sector and helps the sector win public service contracts and whose Chief Executive, Jonathan Lewis, spoke on the panel last night. And because of our collaboration with IPSOS/MORI our events all begin with a vivid picture (provided by the always entertaining Ben Page) of the often contradictory and idiosyncratic nature of public opinion.
Our theme this year has been the Big Society but with a subtly different twist at each conference. Last week Sarah Teather and Simon Hughes were eloquent in explaining why they thought the Big Society could be a Liberal Democrat idea. Last night new Labour MPs Tristram Hunt and Liz Kendall agreed with the debate proposition ‘Labour should wean itself off the big state’. Next week we will explore with the Conservatives how to generate a big society in the most deprived areas, even while they are suffering cuts to benefits and services.
Hunt and Kendall were both very impressive. It occurred to me that David Miliband’s campaign has restored the self respect and self confidence of the ’New Labour’ wing (for want of a better term) of the Labour party. These are people who had felt undermined and even tarnished by the Blair Brown Mandelson soap opera, not to mention some of Labour’s failings in Government. Despite his defeat, the honesty and clarity of the David Miliband campaign has reinvigorated the section of the party that most supported him.
Which goes to show that feeling you are right is a big source of energy. It is why defeat can sometimes be more energising that victory. However, the same emotion can also drive people to be self righteous and even become embittered. As I have said before in this blog, I wish we spent more time in debate trying to agree what we disagree about rather than simply proving the other guy wrong.
Following Ed Miliband’s solid, but less than earth shattering, speech this afternoon some David supporters may have their sense of rightness reinforced. It will, I guess, be important to the Labour Party that this energy is channelled not into recriminations but into guidance and support their new leader.