Friends, not Comrades: Milliband’s NHS Speech

On Monday I attended a talk by Ed Milliband to Labour Party members and supporters on the NHS. As far as I can tell, it was a policy launch, but that isn’t why I went. I went because I wanted to see if Ed Milliband was as much of an idiot in person as he appears to be on TV. I had reason to doubt this; people I know who had seen him speak had told me “He’s much better in person”. But, I remained cynical.

This cynicism was not tempered by the following events: I was ushered into the building by someone who referred to the occasion as the “Ed Event”; the music played while we waited for him seemed to be from Now That’s What I Call Last Decade’s Music, ranging from Scouting for Girls to Busted (I’m not lying); and by the fact that their graphic designers clearly couldn’t agree on which words in Labour: Hardworking Britain Better Off ought to be capitalised.

Also annoying was the fact that the flag to the left reminds me immediately of the Conservative Party website and that the move from red to pink seemed to symbolize a further dilution of the Labour Movement with Thatcherism. Also, the room was set out so that Milliband would be talking from a square platform at the centre of an equidistant audience in a round-table-esque attempt to make the audience feel listened to. What made my cynicism peak, however, was the fact that the photographers and cameramen, there with the aim of recording the event to bring Labour’s message and Ed Milliband to people, had an ironic tendency to get in the way. In fact, my view was obscured throughout the entire session either by photographers, the Autocue, or the lighting. Further, while the talk was going on, due to the positioning of the cameras and the Autocues, Milliband (or Ed) was forced to abandon his King Arthur room layout and face one direction anyway, keeping his back to half the audience so that he never showed it to the camera until after his speech was over.

So, I was very cynical, which is fine. I enjoy being cynical. I am very comfortable with being unimpressed. What I am uncomfortable with, though, is the fact that my cyncism did not last. In spite of myself, I found Milliband brilliant. His speech was one of the best examples of public speaking I’ve seen in person. He spoke with perfect intonation, inspiring all the right emotions at the right times. He was clear and convincing. This was not just because he utilized a set of rhetorical tropes very well (which he did), but because the content of his speech was good. He held the attention of the room completely and spoke in a way that Cameron, someone I had rated a better speaker than Milliband, cannot, simply because he was actually saying something.

OK, we might want to say that, as this was a Labour event, he was among “friends” (how he addressed us every few minutes in his speech). But, the audience was not necessarily Milliband friendly. You saw my attitude walking into the room above. As for the rest, when a college tutor pleaded with him to drop the Hardworking Britain Better Off slogan because, as she rightly pointed out, “It sounds like something the Tories would say”, there was a very loud murmuring of agreement amongst the crowd. Is this just another New Labour leadership barely left of the Tories? Are they campaigning for Tory-Lite? There is no doubt that the party membership is left of the Shadow Cabinet, and they were in no way guaranteed to like Ed’s speech.

I cannot really speak for the others, but, embarrassingly, I found myself enthused. I worried slightly that this may just be the sophists’ charm, but even now, after having had time to think about it, I’m very positive about Milliband and of the NHS policy. It seems to me to have been a decisive step to the left, even if they are maintaining some commitment to less public spending; sensible and electable.

The policy will be covered in greater detail and with greater expertise elsewhere. But, the argument, so far as I understood it, was that the NHS must be kept publicly owned at its core (with some private companies providing support, although ATOS was mentioned as something requiring close criticism). The way that one makes a modern publicly owned health service in a time of austerity, Milliband and Burnham argued, is not by privatising it and reducing spending, but by investing money into schemes that reduce the workload on Hospitals and A&E. People, we were told, are unable to go to a GP or a drop in and have go to A&E because there simply is nowhere else. Further, social care requires more support outside the hospital to prevent people ending up there in the first place. The two basic examples of this that came up were about ensuring that the elderly have their homes properly equipped; if an OAP has a hand rail  then he or she is less likely to fall and less likely to end up in hospital. Milliband did quote the figure for how much the NHS spends in treating people victims of falls, but I cannot remember it. But, it was substantial. The other example that came up later on was adolescent mental health. In a nutshell, if you tackle the social problem of bullying and the mental health problem of depression, one can reduce the number of teenagers admitted to A&E having taken an overdose. Not only are these two examples things any civilized society should be doing anyway, there is a financial argument to appease the capitalists. The core concept of the arguments put forward was “prevention”: lessen the workload and financial burden on the NHS by investing into ways to prevent people needing it.

This seems, to me, eminently sensible, as did everything he said. I’m sure I would have liked him to have said something further to the left, as would every other member of that audience. But, I think what they are doing is sufficient to say that they are left of New Labour. If New Labour was the project that tried to look left wing in order to advance neoliberal policy, the current Labour leadership seem to be trying to look neoliberal to advance left-wing policy. This is not quite “Old” Labour, but it is heading in the right direction.

Perhaps I’m being naive. But, in the interest of full disclosure, this is my reasoning. The college teacher was right: Hardworking Britain Better Off is a Tory-looking slogan. The logic of this reading is that somehow, because we are hardworking, we earn reward. If we do not work hard, then we deserve all the suffering we get. We should have worked harder. This argument is the basis of cuts to welfare.

Milliband did not avoid the question, as I thought he might. He said really, “this goes to a deeper issue”. Which is true. The teacher was not asking about the slogan, but asking “Are you socialist or not?”

His response was to say “This is not a Tory slogan.” He argued that Labour has always been about defending the rights of the people, of the workers. It then occurred to me that when Blair changed Clause IV, one of the key words that disappeared was “worker”. Could its reappearance indicate that Labour are inching towards their traditional goals while pretending to care about austerity?

Maybe, maybe not. But, it is important to remember that this Labour leader made this argument when he had just finished a speech about nationalisation (admittedly only for the NHS, but there was some general critique of competition in the mix too). Further, there are indications commitment to public ownership in that it looks like they’re going to commit to not renewing the railway franchises when they are up and run them publicly. That is, renationalise the railways without having to buy them.

The 2010 Labour slogan was A Future Fair for All. It was a clear reference to the Blairite Clause IV that aimed for “the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”. It is something that sounds left wing, but is actually just liberal. Hardworking Britain Better Off might sound Tory, but, in my opinion, says something left-wing. Sure, it isn’t Old Labour, and Milliband was calling us “friends” and not “comrades”, but, in the context of a Labour Shadow Cabinet talking comfortably about public ownership, I think it takes us a baby-step away from the Third Way and towards the aim of securing “for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof”.



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