Manchester—Is the United Kingdom ready for its first Jewish Prime Minister? The last time Labour held its annual Conference in this northern metropolis the question would have seemed not just parochial but preposterous. I remember watching Former Nation intern Ed Miliband looking distinctly uncomfortable at a Labour Friends of Israel reception just a few days after his come-from-behind 2010 victory as party leader. Despite the kvelling, there was still a palpable reluctance to embrace this newly-anointed Jacob so soon after he’d elbowed aside brother David’s embittered Esau. But then the whole Labour party seemed too consumed by internal anguish to notice that behind the mask of coalition and compromise the Conservatives were pushing forward an aggressive program of cuts and privatization that no one had voted for.
Part of the problem was that during a disastrous election campaign Labour, too, had embraced a version of the austerity narrative that became the coalition government’s founding myth. For months after their defeat Labour remained too obsessed with fiscal rectitude—and fratricidal drama—to offer any real alternatives.
All of which made this year’s Conference seem like Ed Miliband’s coming out party. Although never one to deny his heritage, Miliband is a thoroughly secular Jew. But having decided to use his leader’s speech this year to tell the nation “Who I am. What I believe. And why I have a deep conviction that together we can change this country,” he needed to get up close and personal, outing himself not just as a Jew, but as the son of immigrants—even an unabashed intellectual.
Speaking without notes or teleprompter, Miliband told the delegates he was “a person of faith, not a religious faith but a faith nonetheless”—going on to use the f-word a total of 12 times in his remarks. The only concept that got more of an airing was a piece of deft borrowing from another speech in Manchester, given 140 years earlier by Benjamin Disraeli, in which the leader of the Conservative Party called for a “One Nation” Toryism.
In tracing a line from Disraeli, the Victorian Prime minister whose Reform Act gave British working men the vote, through the victory over fascism in the Second World War to the postwar Labour government of Clement Atlee, which created the National Health Service and the modern welfare state, Miliband was doing more than just stealing the clothes of David Cameron’s now discarded compassionate conservatism. By reminding his own party of their duty to build a country “where prosperity is fairly shared” he finally put a stake through the heart of New Labour. Yet in reaching across the aisle to Disraeli he also rejected the narrow tribalism of those who yearn for a return to old Labour.
Instead of the politics of nostalgia, or neo-liberal accommodation with the machinations of finance capital, Miliband’s “One Nation” Labour offered a left populism that embraced both economic justice and what Michael Sandel, the Harvard philosopher who spoke to a huge, and occasionally bemused audience here two days before Miliband, referred to as “what money can’t buy.” But the choice of Disraeli, born a Jew but baptized at the age of 12, was also a way of turning his own “otherness” into a source of strength rather than shame.
“I think he cracked it,” Sally Gimson, a Labour councillor from Highgate in London, told me afterwards. Judging by the rapturous applause most of the other delegates agreed. Even the national press, which has long derided Miliband’s adenoidal accent and geekish tendencies, called the speech a “game changer.”