Doing or Judging? A comparison between Conference speeches

Ed Miliband, in his speech to the Labour Conference 2011, focused strongly on values, right and wrong, predatory versus productive business as being the basis for his approach. I looked at some of the difficulties of putting this in practice in a previous blog and want to turn my attention to the approach taken by David Cameron in his speech to the Conservative Conference a week later. Cameron’s speech, in contrast, rarely dips into the language of moral judgement and instead is written in terms of action. This is unsurprising, the Prime Minister heads a government that is tasked with doing, whereas the leader of the Opposition, except on the eve of a General Election, needs to sketch out his alternative vision. It takes a skilled orator like Barack Obama to do this in positive and active language like “Yes We Can”.

Cameron’s speech had some echoes of this in its repeated use of the idea that Britain and British people “can do” things. At times it almost descended into the “you’re all individuals” speech from Life of Brian  particularly as the other theme he opened with was that of leadership.

However, in terms what was actually promised the speech was fairly thin. Although the language was active, the reality is that the government is to some extent a passive onlooker on bigger events that are taking place elsewhere. In particular the unfolding euro crisis which both Cameron and earlier in the week, George Osborne, had admitted would have greater impact on the British economy than any measures they could announce.

Due to this, the speech ends up begging to be looked at on the same terms as Miliband’s – a statement of the values of the government which inform the actions it will be taking. In this light, the contrast is between a moralistic approach, as outlined by Miliband (see here for a set of suggestions for how to distinguish between productive and predatory business) and a pragmatic one. Pragmatism is, as Cameron will know from his undergraduate study of Philosophy, no less a moral stance than that outlined by Miliband, but it has the presentational attraction of being associated with reality rather than ideology and idealism. The key dividing line here can be seen around half way through Cameron’s speech:

“As I’ve always argued, we need businesses to be more socially responsible. But to get proper growth, to rebalance our economy, we’ve got to put some important new pieces into place. Taking action now to get credit flowing to the small businesses that are the engine of the economy. And ring-fencing the banks so they fulfil their role of lending safely to the real economy. Setting up Technology and Innovation Centres where scientists and academics can work with entrepreneurs to turn brilliant inventions into successful products. Reforming taxation to encourage enterprise and investment in high growth firms. And sometimes that means taking controversial decisions; challenging vested interests.” (emphasis added)

This attempts to relegate the values driven agenda sketched by Miliband to being an idealistic side-show to the actions needing to be taken. This gets perilously close to “nasty party” stuff when he goes on to criticise excessive protection of workers’ rights by saying that “the most important worker’s right of all is having a job in the first place”. This echoes the gaffe made by Matthew Parris while working in Margaret Thatcher’s office prior to her becoming Prime Minister in responding to a constituent’s letter complaining about their council house by saying that they should be thankful for having one, not moaning about it not being good enough. But, that press furore blew over and didn’t stop Thatcher becoming PM or Parris going on to become an MP, so perhaps I am being over-sensitive. I certainly understand Cameron’s perspective here as I currently work in a job which has only the statutory minimum benefits and workers’ rights (although not salary, thankfully) and much prefer it to the 4 months of unemployment that preceded it!

Cameron ended the passage quoted above with an attack on vested interests. This was also a leading theme of Miliband’s speech. However, the targets in each case are rather different. This becomes more apparent later in the speech where Cameron goes on to talk about education. His criticism of Labour’s policy as practising “oppression and call[ing] it equality” was stingingly direct – as I have blogged previously, well-meaning policies were put in place to set targets for children and schools based on their individual circumstances rather than central diktat, but that the effect of these policies has been to entrench existing problematic features. So, black boys are expected to achieve on the basis of how black boys have achieved in the past and are targeted accordingly – even though good schools will do this sensitively and look to stretch them beyond the target level.

Cameron works instead from the practical apprach taken by successful schools of “We are as good as anyone. Our children can achieve anything” to elevate this to a value higher than equality or being interested in the characteristics of identity groups. Of course, there is a question mark over whether it is approaches like this which lead to success or the investment that goes into the flagship schools like Burlington Danes or Mossbourne Academy that also take this approach. The proof will come in the extent to which such approaches work in transforming schools which are not also going to be receiving large amounts of new funding and new buildings.

Only towards the end of the speech does Cameron start to speak more overtly about morals and values. Unsurprisingly this comes in the contexts of welfare and the riots. First, he contrasts “Under Labour [incapacity benefits claimants who were really capable of working] got something for nothing. With us they’ll only get something, if they give something.” Then, when talking of the riots, he blames “the system” for “fudging the difference between right and wrong”. From the tone, you would expect that this would be very different to what Miliband said. However, it isn’t. Miliband too, talked of “a society too often rewarding not the right people with the right values, but the wrong people with the wrong values”. The list of “wrong” people is not too dissimilar between the two leaders (eg Miliband’s “The take what you can of the gangs. And in parts of some of our communities, a life on benefits. You [ie not them] know what your values are. But they are not the values being rewarded in our benefits system.”). In this respect, Miliband was not being deluded in claiming to represent the mainstream view. Although, it is striking how neither has taken a great deal of interest in the practical problem of how to identify and treat those in genuine need of help with dignity and respect while weeding the wrong ‘uns out.

Indeed, ultimately the most striking thing, when reading the two speeches side by side (and discounting the way they were delivered or the fact that Miliband’s sentences too short to be independently meaningful and Cameron’s often too long to be clear) is how many points of similarity they share. Even the big kerfuffle that greeted the early draft of Cameron’s speech which apparently urged households to focus on paying off their debts (which would dampen down consumer spending and growth and so be harmful to the national economy) missed the fact that Miliband had made the same point that households that were worried about their personal debt should pay off their credit cards.

So, in the end, the differences come down to the choice betweent the specific actions actually being taken by the Government and those that we can only guess that the Opposition would take in the future. The values being espoused are less different than made out by either, but their origins are somewhat different. Is Cameron’s call for Britain and its people to lead with their values in doing what needs to be done preferable to Miliband’s pledge to be led by those values in deciding what he should do?

3 thoughts on “Doing or Judging? A comparison between Conference speeches

  1. Pingback: The Hokey EU Referendum | botzarelli

  2. Pingback: Review of 2011 – 1. Yerp | botzarelli

  3. Pingback: Ed’s Red, Baby, Ed’s Red | botzarelli

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