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Ed’s speech: predators, producers and the proletariat

I cannot remember the last time I was wildly impressed by a leader’s set piece speech to a party conference. These days such perorations are designedly ephemeral affairs, calculated to grab the day’s headlines rather than define any lasting vision.

The words delivered by Ed Miliband yesterday are no exception, and in this case, have generated so much attention elsewhere that there is little point in undertaking a forensic dissection 24 hours after the event.

The consensus seems to be that the address marks some sort of break with New Labour. Unsympathetic commentators menacingly declare it to mark ‘a shift to the left’, and say that like it’s a bad thing; friendlier voices welcome it, in strikingly similar terms, as ‘a brave step to the centre-left’.

In truth, it would be difficult for Labour to move any further to the right than the territory it occupied between 1994 and last year. That Miliband has moved on – however partially, however cautiously, with whatever degree of timidity – will be welcome to many Labour Party members.

But it would be wrong to exaggerate the degree of radicalism involved. Many of the short sentences delivered centred around such non-descript notions as “values” and “change” that could comfortably slot into speeches by Cameron or Clegg without anybody noticing anything amiss.

Perhaps the passage that most obviously did contain meat as well as potatoes was the one that arbitrarily divided business into producers and predators. Bad guys like Sir Fred Goodwin and Southern Cross, Miliband told us, should not be taken as typical. The true exemplar of all that is good in British business is former Rolls-Royce boss Sir John Rose.

Rose is in particularly commended for his commitment to the community and for keeping jobs in this country. Apart from the 2,300 he chopped little more than three years ago, of course. But let’s not quibble.

Miliband’s mistake is to come up with two watertight categories beginning with the letter P and then artificially allocating companies into one or the other pigeonhole.

As the theorist who most influenced the Miliband brothers’ dad was at pains to point out, bosses do not behave despicably for the sake of it. They are constrained to act as they do precisely because they are capital personified and endowed with consciousness and a will.

Anybody who gets to the top of a large company has thereby demonstrated a willingness to act as ruthlessly as the interests of that company demand. No morality is involved in this.

Sir John started his career as a banker. Had it taken another turn and he had ended up in charge of Royal Bank of Scotland, there is no reason to suppose that his conduct would have won him any more Boy Scout badges than that of Sir Fred.

The vast salaries that both men enjoyed are ultimately derived from the efforts of those they employ. From the point of view of the working class, predation with a human face is still predation.

2 Comments

  1. Syzygy says:

    ‘From the point of view of the working class, predation with a human face is still predation.’

    Good analysis and I think you would agree with this one by Tristan Learoyd.

    http://think-left.org/2011/09/30/conference-shows-neoliberalism-lives-on/

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