How Ed Miliband is dealing with the past
It was billed as the moment Ed Miliband would recognise and criticise the last Labour government for being in denial about the deficit and the need for spending cuts. The speech fell some way short of that. Here's the relevant extract:
"Why was the last Labour government too slow in the language that we used, after the financial crisis had created a big deficit, to acknowledge what our own plans implied, that there would eventually have to be cuts? Part of the answer is that we hadn't shown other ways of delivering social justice."
I suspect that Blairites will regard Ed as being, in his own words, "too slow in the language" he has used. Gordon Brown wasn't just slow to say the word "cuts". He denied the need for cuts and attacked David Cameron as "Mr 10 per cent" while his own chancellor drew up plans to raise VAT and to cut spending not "eventually" but, as Alistair Darling has himself acknowledged, immediately after the election at a rate deeper and faster than Mrs Thatcher had.
My sense is that Ed Miliband's speech is made up of the things he instinctively believes and those bits of political positioning he's been advised to adopt. His own views are interesting. At one point he argues:
"We can't build economic efficiency or social justice simply in the way we have tried before. It won't be enough to rely on a deregulated market economy providing the tax revenues for redistribution. New Labour's critical insight in the 1990s and 2000s was that we needed to be stewards of a successful market economy to make possible social justice through redistribution. The critical insight of Labour in my generation is that both wealth creation and social justice need to be built into the way our economy works."
By this he says he means a high wage economy, the introduction of a Living Wage and respect for communities so that their concerns about government targets, out-of-town supermarkets and post office closures are not simply ignored in the name of efficiency. What he does not say is how this rebalanced economy - something which, incidentally, I have heard both George Osborne and Vince Cable call for - can be created. Watching how his thinking develops will be fascinating.
What is clear already, however, is that Ed Miliband believes that his old mentor got his language, but not his fiscal policy, wrong. Why, you may ask, does this debate about the past matter? The answer is to ask yourself whether other issues of the past mattered - the Winter of Discontent or Tory sleaze and divisions on Europe. The crisis of 2008 and the cuts that have followed it have the potential, as the Labour leader himself points out, to reshape politics as dramatically as the IMF crisis of 1976 or the ERM crisis of 1992. Labour were out of power for four terms after their crisis and the Tories for three terms after theirs. The electorate will, at the next election be asked to judge whether to blame Labour for the current crisis or the coalition for its harsh reaction to it.
Ed Miliband needs not only to provide a credible alternative to the coalition's policy of cuts and "Maoist" public service reforms. He needs to explain what social democratic politics looks like in an era without easy money to spend. To do so he may need to develop an account of Labour's period in office that addresses more than just a failure to regulate the banks and a slowness of language.