The BBC website provides a useful word cloud for Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour Party conference yesterday. Here it is:
Two things immediately stand out: 1) after ‘generation’ (frequent references to a ‘new generation’ of Labour politics), the most frequently occurring word is ‘country’ (37 instances); 2) there is absolutely no reference to ‘England’ – not one.
On the one hand, this lack of engagement on the part of the new Labour leader with the idea or reality of England should and does not surprise us. It would be more surprising if Ed Miliband had talked at any length at all about ‘England’ and the need for the party to address the concerns of ordinary English people. On the other hand, the total absence of ‘England’ from the speech belies the new leader’s attempt to differentiate himself from New Labour, as the lack of an English dimension to Labour’s vision of and for ‘the country’ represents a strong thread of continuity with New Labour days. Instead of ‘England’, Miliband resorted to the stock term, ‘country’, that politicians and those in the media employ to avoid being specific about whether they are talking about Britain as a whole or England only, or both.
Nonetheless, Miliband’s speech does represent a break with New Labour practice in that ‘Britain’, too, appears to have lapsed into disuse: ‘British’ and ‘Britain’ garnered only 16 mentions. At least, we’re now not getting ‘Britain’ thrust in our faces at every turn when a Labour politician is talking about purely English policy areas; but that’s partly because there was very little on policy as such in Miliband’s speech, nor was there expected to be. So ‘country’ has come to replace ‘Britain’ as well as ‘England’, probably for the same reason: it allows you to avoid being specific about which country you’re referring to in different contexts, thereby avoiding the embarrassment of having to say ‘Britain’ when everyone knows that what you’re referring to is relevant to England only, but you can’t say so because ‘England’ is the ultimate taboo word.
This lack of references to the name(s) of the country or countries being evoked, and even to particular regions or parts of the country (such as the North or the South), creates a strange impression of non-specificity: a vision for the ‘country’ that is not grounded in any geographical, indeed geopolitical, reality. This is Labour’s, or Ed Miliband’s, vision for ‘society’, ‘the economy’, ‘government’ and ‘politics’ (all among the most commonly used words, as the word cloud illustrates) where the national collectivity and context that are implied and invoked in these terms remain completely nameless during large parts of the speech: as it were abstracted out of the vision. ‘We’ and ‘our’ (as in the endlessly intoned ‘our country’, ‘our society’, ‘our economy’) are among the most frequently occurring words in the speech (not shown in the word cloud, which is limited to nouns, verbs, adverbs and adjectives). But it’s never spelled out who are the ‘we’ thus addressed. In the end, the inescapable impression is that ‘we’ is above all the collective consciousness of the Labour Party in its aspiration to re-take ownership of ‘the country’:
“The optimism of Tony and Gordon who took on the established thinking and reshaped our country. We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world.”
Far from reaching out to the British people, let alone the English people, this is Labour talking to itself about Labour’s vision of ‘the country’ – as it were the ‘Labour nation’, which can be set out in its pure form, untainted by the all-too recent realities of Labour in government, only because it abstracts itself from any real national context.
But if you don’t name the country you’re talking about, can you really espouse and re-connect with the aspirations and priorities of ordinary people, who want their leaders to set out believable visions for their country – England – and, perhaps more importantly, want them to acknowledge ways in which they’ve let down their country in the past. Ed Miliband had a little go at this when he owned up to the failings of the outgoing Labour government in areas such as tuition fees and immigration policy:
“I understand why you felt that we were stuck in old thinking about higher and higher levels of personal debt, including tuition fees”
“this new generation recognises that we did not do enough to address concerns about globalisation, including migration. All of us heard it on the doorsteps about immigration. Like the man I met in my constituency who told me he had seen his mates’ wages driven down by the consequences of migration. If we don’t understand why he would feel angry – and it wasn’t about prejudice – then we are failing to serve those who we are in politics to represent. I am the son of immigrants. I believe that Britain has benefited economically, culturally, socially from those who came to this country. I don’t believe either that we can turn back the clock on free movement of labour in Europe. But we should never have pretended it would not have consequences. Consequences we should have dealt with.”
Note the tic of referring to the sensitive issue in each case almost as an afterthought introduced by ‘including’: including tuition fees (just another personal debt issue); including migration (just another fraught consequence of necessary globalisation). In fact, this is not really apologising for old New Labour’s policies in these areas at all. He’s not actually saying Labour was wrong to introduce tuition fees, just that these were an unfortunate extra debt burden on people. And then his expression of ‘understanding’ about migration turns into a defence of it – including his own personal background – as being overwhelmingly of benefit for Britain and in part a consequence of something regarded as essentially positive: the “free movement of labour in Europe”.
But it’s England and Wales specifically that were burdened by tuition fees and then top-up fees, thanks to the votes of Labour’s Scottish MPs, whose own constituents were exempt from both. It’s English voters who were mainly affected and concerned by immigration, as England has borne the brunt of it. Immigration may have enhanced the stock of Britain, in every sense, including that of the Miliband family, but what has it done for England? Answer me that, Ed. (And that’s an open question, but not one Ed Miliband is really prepared to address.)
In fact, Miliband – at least as exemplified in this speech – is not prepared to ask the English question itself, let alone suggest an answer to it, as this passage amply demonstrates:
“The old thinking told us that for 300 years, the choice was either the break up of the United Kingdom or Scotland and Wales run from London. We should be proud that Labour established the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. And we should make sure that after next May’s elections we re-elect Carwyn Jones as the First Minister in Wales and we elect Iain Gray as the new First Minister in Scotland. And I am so so proud that, against all the odds, we helped deliver peace in Northern Ireland. And it will be one of Tony Blair’s great legacies to this country and we owe our gratitude to him.”
So devolution as enacted by New Labour is something to be proud of. No hint of a suggestion that it might have left England just a tad short-changed and that it raises questions about the governance of England. Here above all, Ed Miliband is keeping faith with the old New Labour certainties and with the former Labour Lord Chancellor Derry Irving’s assertion that the best answer to the West Lothian Question is not to ask it! He can’t even bring himself to mention the ‘E’ word in the one passage throughout the whole speech where the English question is absolutely begging. But that’s precisely it: it’s begging a question he isn’t prepared to even engage in.
So England might as well just not exist at all in Ed Miliband’s vision of ‘the country’: ‘our country’, Labour’s country. And the unwillingness to even pronounce the dirty ‘E’ word signals a failure to acknowledge the ways in which New Labour profoundly let down England specifically – indeed, as we have seen, Miliband actually defends and justifies the outgoing government’s record in English matters even as he appears to acknowledge its failings.
So perhaps we should give the last word to the new leader himself. Nothing changes, really: new generation, same old new Labour and same old new Britain. For ‘the country’, you can in fact read ‘Britain’, or at least Labour’s fictitious, rose-tinted vision or version of it that air-brushes England out of the picture. Yes, you’ve guessed what the last word in the speech, and the last word of the speech, is:
“We are the optimists in politics today. So, let’s be humble about our past. Let’s understand the need to change. Let’s inspire people with our vision of the good society. Let the message go out, a new generation has taken charge of Labour. Optimistic about our country. Optimistic about our world. Optimistic about the power of politics. We are the optimists and together we will change Britain.”