Who reads election speeches? Certainly not voters and, mostly, not the journalists whose job you might imagine it is to report them. As an editor friend at the BBC tells me, news these days is all about “impact” rather than content; and, unless you are Barack Obama, speeches just do not do it.
But some speeches are worth a second glance. This – from Peter Mandelson – is one of them.
One of the baffling thing about politics during the past couple of years has been the failure of parties of the centre-left to seize the political opportunity presented by the global financial crisis. The crash, after all, destroyed the self-serving myths of laissez-faire capitalism. “Government bad, market good” is not so easy a slogan to sell when millions have been thrown out of their jobs by the great banking rip-off.
So why are social democrats is such disarray?
Mr Obama, of course, is an important exception – the meltdown on Wall Street assured him the presidency. But elsewhere the troubles of centre-right incumbents – think of France’s Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany’s Angela Merkel or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi – have not translated into political success for the left.
One obvious answer is that these European leaders were never much sold on the unfettered capitalism of the Washington Consensus and have been as vehement as any socialist in condemning the excesses of financiers. More importantly, though, politicians of the centre-left have failed to craft an alternative narrative about how to rebalance the relationships between the state, the market and the individual.
Lord Mandelson is one of the few who has had a decent shot and it – and it shows in this latest speech. It goes without saying that much of what he says about the the present government’s record and the Tories’ alternatives is self-serving or tendentious. We are after all in an election campaign. But he is right in the central argument that Britain – and indeed Europe – cannot simply expect markets to deliver sustained prosperity.
The Conservatives agree on the need to rebalance Britain’s economy, if only to fill the hole left by a smaller financial services industry. But thus far George Osborne, the shadow chancellor, has had little to say about the how. If the Tories win the election, that will not be an option.
The market fundamentalists, of course, say all this would take Britain back to the state control and picking losers we saw in the 1970s – as if untrammelled markets and worship at the altar of shareholder value has since brought Britain nothing but prosperity. The reality is that we do need a new contract: one neither as statist as Gordon Brown would like, nor as instinctively small “l” liberal as David Cameron would favour.