Ed Miliband’s economic problems: an issue of communication or substance?

The Labour leader needs to simplify his message and make it more combative

Crines_100As party conference season comes to a close in Britain, Ed Miliband has come under fire for forgetting to mention the deficit in his closing speech. This omission, although embarrassing, should not, however, be taken as wholesale neglect of the economy.  There is more to the economy than the deficit.  Indeed, since 2012 he has been making his case for economic change in Britain through One Nation Labour.  Although admittedly the phrase was absent from his most recent conference oration, the texture of the idea remains.

Miliband’s economic ideas revolve around a reconceptualisation of social democracy for the post-New Labour world.  They strive to bring together public and private sectors to create a more cohesive economy.  Their central theme is the need to inject a stronger sense of social responsibility into the activities of the private sector.  This is particularly evident with his arguments on breaking up the banks and compelling businesses to sponsor more apprentices. His justification for a stronger role for the state is that neither banking nor private industry exist separately from the rest of the country.  In his view, these sectors have a responsibility to society.  Certainly, this aspiration chimes with the longstanding desire of the Labour Party to build a more socially just society based on collective values.

In the same way that New Labour broadly accepted the realities of globalisation, One Nation Labour accepts the reality of a role for the state.  Indeed, the state had saved the capitalist economic order in 2008, and again across Europe since.  However Labour’s loss of power in 2010 prevented it from being able to articulate fully the case for a modern, dogma-free managed economy.  Rather, the Conservatives have sought to cast Gordon Brown’s fiscal defence of neoliberalism as an imprudent ‘repeat’ of excessive Keynesian spending which, they argue, needs to be redressed in the conventional manner of spending cuts ‘in the national interest’.  In effect, repudiating this Conservative economic narrative has needed to be a key part of Miliband’s rhetorical strategy.

Unfortunately for Miliband, his defence is falling on deaf ears because his style of communication is based on consensual politics.  This gets in the way of his social democratic message.  Whilst the ideas he propagates derive essentially from longstanding Labour values, he has so far been unable to communicate them effectively because his rhetorical style is too dependent upon complex arguments rooted in economic or social theory.  Put simply, Miliband’s arguments have been too economically abstract for an audience that expects a concise message.  This is not to say his argument is flawed or indeed that novel – indeed, his aspirations reflect those of such Labour greats as Wilson, Kinnock and Smith and arguably   the strategy he is advocating would be socially and economically prudent. The flaw is his style of communication.

However, it would be facile to argue that he is incapable of ever making an impact.  In fact, his oratory excels when the audience is on his side (for example, his phone hacking speech in the Commons captured the mood of the house, and his two One Nation speeches captured the attention of the Labour movement).  However, in a more combative arena Miliband is simply unable to get his message across.  His defence of modern social democracy fails to resonate, not because the idea is flawed, but rather because he is unable to communicate it against political opponents.  The consequence is that his opponents have been able to consolidate their preferred narrative of Labour’s economic failings, thereby preserving austerity as apparently the only economic option.

Miliband is further challenged by the perception of an economic recovery, even though this recovery is predicated upon an asymmetrical housing market boom focused on the south-east. It has not been felt across the majority of the United Kingdom, which prevents the Conservatives from benefitting from a meaningful ‘feel-good’ factor.  Indeed, it has been a highly targeted recovery in the social sense, benefiting most those most likely to support fiscal austerity.  Yet it does at least afford Cameron with an opportunity to construct a narrative that a more substantial recovery is around the corner.  Furthermore, it makes Miliband’s arguments harder to communicate, precisely because his economic vision focuses upon more equal national growth.  Indeed, his argument for a more redistributive economy across the United Kingdom fails to chime with the property-owning middle-classes who may have little or no interest in industrial or social investment.

The increasing political challenge posed by UKIP is of course giving the genuinely and rightfully aggrieved working classes an alternative way of harming the Conservatives. Miliband is also unable to face this challenge effectively, again because his communication style is so grounded in consensus.  By contrast, Farage’s style is combative.  As a result, Miliband is less able to communicate the value of his economic strategy to those most likely to benefit from it.

What is to be done?  First, Miliband needs to find a way of communicating his economic strategy in far more concise language than has previously been the case.  One Nation Labour is a very intellectually cohesive idea with a number of caveats and propositions.  However, as an electoral strategy it may be far too complex.  In order to be rhetorically convincing it needs to be condensed into snappy bullet points that communicate quickly and easily the value of a One Nation political economy.

Second, Miliband needs to become more combative.  Labour history has been driven by strong communicators deploying tough and combative language.  Bevan, Gaitskell, Wilson, Foot, Kinnock, Smith, Blair and Brown (to name just a few) each confronted their opponents with emotional arguments that set out how they would change the party and the country.  Thus far, Miliband has sought to lead the Labour movement on a journey of consensual renewal and managed economic change.  His approach has failed because he has sought to communicate his agenda in a unifying manner, permitting little or no internal argument.

Labour’s great economic reformers have all used combative rhetoric to get their message across.  Nor have they been afraid to identify and take on internal enemies.  It’s above all the lack of this sense of being on a similar rhetorical and economic journey which has made Miliband’s leadership appear ineffective.  There has been no equivalent to the ‘White Heat of Technology’, no 1985 conference, no Clause 4 moment.  As a result, Labour’s (actually quite well developed) economic strategy has simply faded from the public memory.

Andrew tweets at @AndrewCrines