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.”
My own verdict is a little more restrained. As an orator Ed Miliband, on his best day, is no Bill Clinton—or even Tony Blair. The few times he had to stop for applause came not in response to policy proposals or personal revelations but after blistering attacks on an “incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make it up as you go along, back of the envelope, miserable … Prime Minister.”
With the next election not expected until 2015, political debate here often seems more a matter of symbol than of substance. So when Ed Balls, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said that if his party were in power today he would take £2.5 billion due from the sale of 4G mobile phone licenses and use it not to pay off the national debt—as Gordon Brown did with the proceeds of the 3G auction—but instead to finance the construction of 100,000 affordable homes, critics hastened to point out that Labour isn’t in power, and even if they win the next election the money will already be gone.
But symbolism sometimes wins elections. Whatever chancellor George Osborne actually does with the 4G windfall will now be compared with those shiny new—if entirely imaginary—houses. Lately the symbols have been running Labour’s way. Tory chief whip Andrew Mitchell’s fracas last month, in which he cursed at police officers and called them “plebs” after they refused to let him cycle through the gates at 10 Downing Street, confirmed an image of his party as sneering snobs. Health secretary Jeremy Hunt’s comment last week that abortion ought to only be legal up to 12 weeks was promptly disavowed by David Cameron—but the impression of a party who want to turn back the clock was not easily dispelled.
As mood music, Miliband’s invocation of “One Nation Labour” is already a hit. But Maurice Glasman, a Saul Alinsky-style community organizer who was the new Labour leader’s first appointment to the House of Lords, hopes for a more substantial change of tune. “Capitalism cannot be regulated at arms length,” he has written. “It needs to be domesticated at source.... The redistribution of power is as important as the redistribution of wealth.” The architect of “Blue Labour”—a strategy sometimes described as a blend of economic radicalism and social conservatism—Glasman, like Jon Cruddas, the MP in charge of Labour’s policy review, is neither an old fashioned statist nor a neo-liberal preaching accommodation to market values.
Instead Glasman, who describes his own politics as “Bundist”—a nod to the Yiddish socialist rival to communism—has long called for the kind of synthesis suggested by Miliband’s “One Nation” vision. “It’s about strengthing and supporting associations and institutions that aren’t defined by the market,” he told me. “That isn’t how liberals see it. They efficiency, choice, progress. But Labour politics is rooted in the democratic resistance to the commodification of human beings.”
At ground level that means forging links between trade unions and religious groups. It means campaigning for a living wage so that cleaners and cooks and security guards can earn enough to support their families without having to work two jobs—or to rely on state benefits. And it means acknowledging that working class fears about immigrants undercutting wages have some basis in reality.
In his speech Miliband admitted “the last Labour government didn’t do enough to address these concerns.” But he went to explain that his own approach would not be to demonize migrants, but to crack down on employers who refused to pay the minimum wage, or recruitment agencies who only hire overseas—a neat left-hand turn on an issue that his predecessors seemed afraid to grapple with.
On the night after Miliband’s speech there was a panel devoted to the American election, where a packed room received a brief induction into “swing states” and the mysteries of the electoral college. Ronald Reagan admired Margaret Thatcher, but on the left the intellectual current across the Atlantic has lately been west-to-east. Ed Miliband spent a summer at the Nation and three semesters teaching at Harvard. But if he can manage to flesh out the sketchy, if seductive, parameters of his “One Nation” speech into a politics that genuinely redistributes power along with wealth, and does so while offering an economic policy that goes beyond “austerity lite,” it will mark more than just a turn in the intellectual tide. And that really would be something to kvell about.