I have to congratulate Ed Miliband. For months, if not years, I have been saying that Labour has to go through the process of owning up to its mistakes in plain sight of the public so that it can be trusted again.
At long last at this week’s Labour conference in Liverpool Mr Miliband started that journey. It might have been a hesitant, almost faltering start but at least the direction of travel was set; he is not Tony Blair, he told his audience. Why, he’s not even Gordon Brown.
He even inferred that Margaret Thatcher had got some things right when he said Labour should not have opposed council house sales – although he naturally stopped short of saying her trade union reforms were tickety-boo.
There’s much more of this to come hopefully. If Labour can begin to see how its spinning of stories way beyond any credible truth led to the public losing faith with politicians, it will help heal the open wounds. And they must be healed, for the contagion has spread to all the other parties, which too often resort to the same economy with the truth, exaggeration and downright lies if they think they can get away with it.
Far too many political leaders still rely on the practices perfected by Mandelson, Campbell and Blair 12 years ago.
If the opposition party was to start using real facts, real examples of people suffering injustice and really own up to the mistakes it made, it would put real pressure on the slippery David Cameron to stop acting as Tory Blair.
So far, so good.
Unfortunately there’s still a long way to go. Labour conference-goers are still apt to applaud union leaders such as Dave Prentis, the general secretary of Unison, when he called the coalition “bastards” for their hard line on containing public sector pensions.
This is the same Dave Prentis who, according to Unison’s annual report (2010, P16), earns over £100,000, putting him in the fat cat bracket that Gordon Brown clamped down on. Mr Prentis is topping up his pension by a further £32,000 using his union’s salary sacrifice scheme. This is perfectly legal and ensures that rather than suffer an effective tax rate of 60 per cent on his income, it will be sheltered from that tax rate. It’s what’s called tax avoidance.
These are the double standards that Ed Miliband has to eradicate. Union bosses and Labour leaders need to get their snouts out of the trough if they are to have credibility when talking about cuts, bankers and the rest.
There’s still a long way to go.
Red (faced) Rory
Remember that old footage of a 16-year-old William Hague speaking to the Tory conference at Blackpool in 1977? I do. In fact, I was there. Stuck behind a wide pillar the girth of Cyril Smith, I couldn’t see him, but heard what I thought was a 50-year-old man whinging (eloquently) about Labour’s bankrupt Britain (sounds familiar, eh?) The speech is often used by the BBC nowadays to embarrass Hague because he looks so wet and innocent, but it was in fact a good speech and carried the immortal comment, “Half of you won’t be here in 30 or 40 years’ time”.
Since then the media have been waiting patiently for the next Young Turk to come on the scene. My old friend Lloyd Beat pulled off a similar feat, speaking at the Tory conference in Perth when only 15 (skipping school to do so) but he sadly died before his promising political career could be fulfilled.
This week the Labour conference gave a standing ovation to 16-year-old Rory Weal from Kent, thinking they had found their star of the future, their own William Hague.
Rory really had a go at the wicked right-wing Tories, explaining how, thanks to the recession, he and his family had been kicked out on to the streets after the repossession of his home. It was the welfare state that had stepped in to save him and now those Tories were ripping it apart. Tears were no doubt shed as people felt for his family’s pain and the injustice of it all.
Naturally, the media descended on Rory, eager to find out just who he was – and wow, what a story. Unfortunately it was not the story Labour supporters hoped for. It turned out that the family home had been a £950,000 house, Lodge Chislehurst (hardly a two up two down), and his father had a property portfolio worth £2.25 million – including a penthouse in leafy Blackheath valued at £1.3 million.
Mr Weal’s property business went bust in 2008, but wait a minute, that was when Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling ran the economy, not Cameron, Clegg or Osborne.
To add even more embarrassment, Rory used to go to a £13,000-a-year private school, but when money ran out switched to an independent Grammar – the type of schools Labour MPs love to close (but quietly send their kids to).
Everybody was left smiling. But it turns out Rory’s an accomplished actor and his family thought he wanted to tread the boards. What better party for young Rory than the party of spin, of duping the public? Rory could be the natural heir to Tony Blair.