Cameron and Miliband speeches: Reading between the lines

Line-by-line analysis of the moment Cameron and Miliband headed down very different paths in response to the riots.

By Ian Dunt

The two speeches we heard this morning not only signalled the end of the cross-party truce over the riots; they also laid out dramatically different political approaches to last week's disorder.

With the violence now died down, David Cameron's speech mostly consisted of arguing that pre-existing government policy would undo the causes of the disorder. In other areas, however, the prime minister signalled a distinct turning to the right, suggesting that the uneasy truce between Conservatives and Lib Dems on social issues may be at an end.

Meanwhile, Ed Miliband signalled a distinct break from the Conservatives' approach, offering a robust left-wing alternative to Cameron's agenda while maintaining a tough-on-the-causes-of-crime sentiment which he hopes will keep him on the right side of the tabloids.

Cameron's fight-back speech

"Let's be clear. These riots were not about race… these riots were not about government cuts… and these riots were not about poverty: that insults the millions of people who, whatever the hardship, would never dream of making others suffer like this."

Early on, Cameron casts to one side the dominant argument from the left: that poverty and inequality plays a role in community breakdown. His argument is that because not all poor people break the law, an explanation which involves poverty cannot be accurate.

"We have been too unwilling for too long to talk about what is right and what is wrong. So you can't say that marriage and commitment are good things – for fear of alienating single mothers."

No sooner has Cameron made the argument on poverty than he contradicts it. By tacitly accepting that not all single parent families create irresponsible youths, Cameron acknowledges that poverty can still explain disorder even if most poor people would never behave in such a way. Note the attack on moral relativism – a key irritant for grassroots Conservatives.

"In this risk-free ground of moral neutrality there are no bad choices, just different lifestyles… 'Live and let live' becomes 'do what you please.'"

This attack on relativism, which directs state resources towards need rather than a consistent view of proper behaviour, opens out a whole raft of controversial policy suggestions, not least of all the recognition of marriage in the tax system. This sort of policy is likely to create tensions with the Lib Dems. Nick Clegg once called the married couple tax policy a "bribe".

"Nothing in this job is more important to me than keeping people safe. It is obvious to me that to do that we’ve got to be tough, we've got to be robust…That starts with a stronger police presence – pounding the beat, deterring crime, ready to re-group and crack down at the first sign of trouble."

The focus on firm law-and-order policy shows how badly the events of the last few days have damaged Ken Clarke's plans for penal reform. The attempt to save money by freeing up prison spaces now looks more difficult but in a broader, more philosophical, basis it has turned the public debate around so that an argument for a more liberal approach to criminal justice will be far harder to make.

"For years we've had a police force suffocated by bureaucracy, officers spending the majority of their time filling in forms and stuck behind desks. This won't be fixed by pumping money in and keeping things basically as they’ve been."

But Cameron draws a line at cancelling cuts to the police budget, relying on the argument that you can cut budgets and maintain frontline policing by reducing administrative and back-office costs.

"You want the police out patrolling your streets instead of sitting behind their desks? Elected police and crime commissioners are part of the answer: they will provide that direct accountability so you can finally get what you want when it comes to policing."

Cameron then suggests the pre-existing policy of elected police chiefs will form part of the solution – another example of using the riots to justify the existing political agenda.

"Families matter… I've been saying this for years, since before I was prime minister, since before I was leader of the Conservative party. So from here on I want a family test applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families, if it undermines commitment, if it tramples over the values that keeps people together, or stops families from being together, then we shouldn't do it."

Cameron explicitly brings his married couples' tax policy back into play but expands it to suggest a family test would be applied to all social policy. This is potentially a gigantic political shift, introducing a proudly moralistic and potentially paternal approach which has been out of favour with policy-makers for a generation. While Cameron might manage to get tax breaks back on the table, a wider moral agenda would cause serious friction with his coalition partners.

"We need an education system which reinforces the message that if you do the wrong thing you'll be disciplined. They foster pride through strict uniform and behaviour policies."

The appeal to strict school discipline throws red meat to the Tory grassroots – another sign of a distinct rightward shift in response to the riots.

"We are creating more academies… The people behind these success stories are now opening free schools."

Again, the prime minister suggests existing policy plans will define government response to the riots.

"Yet the truth is that for too long the big bossy bureaucratic state has drained [responsibility] away. It's usurped local leadership with its endless Whitehall diktats. Is it any wonder that many people don't feel they have a stake in their community?"

Cameron grasps further than before by suggesting the riots justify his 'big society' policy, in a line of reasoning which suggests that an overbearing state belittles the individual's sense of responsibility. This argument, which sounds almost harmless, has very far-reaching and right-wing political implications.

"One of the biggest parts of this social fight-back is fixing the welfare system. For years we've had a system that encourages the worst in people – that incites laziness, that excuses bad behaviour, that erodes self-discipline, that discourages hard work."

The prime minister again uses the responsibility argument to argue against state action in general – not just in terms of regulation but also with regards to welfare and benefits. This argument substantiates the policy initiative already being implemented by Iain Duncan Smith – although it hints that it could be toughened up even further. This would not be surprising. The policy is very popular with the public.

"As we consider these questions of attitude and behaviour, the signals that government sends, and the incentives it creates we inevitably come to the question of the Human Rights Act and the culture associated with it…. The twisting and misrepresenting of human rights… undermined personal responsibility. It is exactly the same with health and safety."

In a final flourish, Cameron extends his 'responsibility' mantra to the meat and potatoes of Conservative members – human rights legislation and health and safety laws. Cameron has done this before, notably during his party conference speeches. But he has toned down that rhetoric since entering coalition because it is widely despised by Liberal Democrats. The speech suggests that the prime minister believes the riots have opened up a space on the right which the junior coalition partner will struggle to ignore.

Miliband national conversation speech

"This week, I did what politicians don't do enough. I went out on the streets of the areas affected and I listened to whoever came up to me."

Miliband foreshadows his calls for a national inquiry by suggesting that no firm policy conclusions can be arrived at without first listening to the communities that have been affected. This contrasts sharply with the government response, which relies on existing policies. As an opening gambit, it also allows Miliband to suggest he is not merely mapping out his existing political prejudices, as he will soon accuse Cameron of doing, but responding to events.

"From almost all, I have heard condemnation, a refusal to make excuses or justify these acts. That is why it is right that tough punishments are being handed out."

Miliband makes it clear early on that he wants harsh penalties for those involved in the disorder. He knows right-wing tabloids will be keen to attack him for a soft response to the disorder as soon as he starts to formulate a left-wing/liberal response and needs to cover his tracks.

"And yet I have heard something else: a deep need to explain, a profound desire to understand. When we first said 20 years ago that we should be tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime, we spoke to the common sense of people then and now."

Miliband moves from a robust law-and-order response to a more progressive political and social agenda using Tony Blair's famous line about the causes of crime. Note the way he is happy to take on New Labour terminology where it still resonates with the public.

"There is an easy and predictable path for politicians. It might even be the more popular in the short term – and I heard some people demand it on the streets. It puts the riots down to 'criminality' pure and simple. If others wish to tread this path, that is a matter for them. But it's not the one for me. It is not strength but an absolute abdication of responsibility to the victims, our communities and the country."

A full-bloodied attack on Cameron is made early on, using his line from the Commons last week that the riots are primarily to do with criminality. Miliband uses this to portray the prime minister as superficial but also as weak – a death-grip for any politician if it is widely accepted by the public. The Labour leader is suggesting that by failing to assess the roots of the riots and instead reaffirming the status quo Cameron is inviting more disorder in the future.

"There is another path, simply to blame others. Blame the parents… blame the police. And we've certainly seen a lot of that in the last few days. Our police force, already being undermined by cuts to the number of officers, now undermined further. An unseemly attempt by government to take credit for operational decisions when things went well and to criticise them when things didn't."

For the next attack Miliband uses the tiff between ministers and the police to paint the government response as one of Downing Street frantically trying to avoid blame. This allows him to bring the row over police cuts into the frame and sides him implicitly with Scotland Yard. It also revels in the spiteful contradictory press releases being released by the Home Office and the Met, with a view to making the government seem inept, selfish and distracted in the long-term. The criticism that Downing Street is fighting political games instead of dealing with the issues is potentially very grave.

"Of course, there is a demand for quick action. But a new policy a day, knee-jerk gimmicks rushed out without real thought will not solve the problem."

In an ironic aside, Miliband attacks the government for the same thing Cameron used to criticise Tony Blair and Gordon Brown for: over-legislating and a compulsive attention to the media cycle. The point is sound. The government's current response to the riots, especially after early criticism of Cameron's holiday and police loss of control, reflects the frenzied urgency of Alistair Campbell more than the laid back approach evidenced since Cameron entered Downing Street.

"A prime minister, who used to say the answer was to hug a hoodie, now says the answer is to reform our health and safety laws. A crisis like tells us something about our political leaders. Day by day the prime minister has revealed himself to be reaching for shallow and superficial answers."

Finally the leader of the opposition drops all pretence and issues a bruising broadside against the prime minister, using personal attacks and high rhetoric to portray him as shallow and unable to react to events. Labour are keen to use this and the phone-hacking scandal as evidence that Cameron fails to measure up to major tests of his leadership.

"To answer what has happened, we have to state the most inconvenient truth of all: yes, people are responsible for their actions but we all bear a share of responsibility for the society we create."

This line is Miliband's clearest espousal of a 'third path' response to the riots – accepting the role of personal responsibility which Cameron used throughout his argument but adding a deeper social context which allows for discussions around inequality and deprivation. It's his version of 'tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime'.

"After every major disturbance, from Brixton to Oldham, we have had a commission to look at the causes. We must have one this time. A genuine national conversation, not a group of MPs simply focused on policing and criminal justice."

Miliband's main policy proposals – a national inquiry – allow him to pretend he has not already reached his conclusions (the previous line reveals that he has to almost exactly the same extent as Cameron has). It also offers a medium-term demand, allowing Labour more time to evaluate the public mood before it commits itself to a more left-wing response to the disorder.

"If the prime minister wants to know the solutions, he should come to these communities and have the humility to listen. You should have nothing to fear from the truth."

Note how Miliband loses no chances to portray Cameron as weak and out-of-touch.

"Some people say it's all about family breakdown, but there are single parents who do a brilliant job and two-parent families who do a terrible job. Some people say it's all about the feckless at the bottom, but there are rich families unable to control their kids and poor families who do it very well."

This line uses the same rhetorical tool Cameron used to dismiss poverty as a motivating factor – that it is not always the case and therefore has no explanatory role. Most Liberal Democrats will overwhelmingly agree with it, giving some indication of the trouble Cameron would have getting major changes to social policy through the Commons. Miliband is more careful than Cameron, however, and merely uses it to show that it does not explain the situation by itself, not that it has no role at all.

"We need to ask what we can do about an economy where children don’t see enough of their parents because they are working 50, 60, even 70 hours a week. One of the most important things government can do is back families up, with programmes like Family Intervention Partnerships and Family Nurse Partnerships."

Throughout the speech Miliband highlights difficulties the market imposes on families. That contrasts sharply with Cameron's focus on how it is the state that damages family relations. In Miliband's speech government programmes are part of the solution, not the problem.

"It's not the first time we've seen this kind of me-first, take what you can culture. The bankers who took millions while destroying people's savings: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The MPs who fiddled their expenses: greedy, selfish, and immoral. The people who hacked phones to get stories to make money for themselves: greedy, selfish and immoral. People who talk about the sick behaviour of those without power, should talk equally about the sick behaviour of those with power."

Miliband associates the behaviour of rioters with those of the establishment. Implicitly, this argument suggests that family breakdown, which is rarer among those from that strata, is not as prevalent an issue as Cameron would have us believe. The passage also opens out the space for a more holistic, radical critique which would bring the powerful banking, political and media sectors into the explanation – and potentially the policy response.

"But just as those on the left who dismiss arguments about culture are wrong, so are those on the right who dismiss the importance of opportunity and hope. It is true that some from comfortable backgrounds took part in the riots. So a lack of opportunity cannot explain all of what happened. But just because it can't explain everything, it doesn't mean it can’t explain anything."

Miliband pretends that his responsibility arguments are a concession to the right, when in fact he used them to substantiate a series of left-wing claims. He then addresses the poverty/single parent objection head-on by insisting that just because something is not always the case does not mean it has no explanatory potential.

"'Individuals are responsible for their actions—and every individual has the choice between doing right and doing wrong. But there are connections between circumstances and behaviour.' These aren't my words. They are the words of David Cameron in a speech five years ago."

Miliband makes the argument with maximum political effect by taking the most useful quote from Cameron's pre-election speeches, where he was prepared to offer considerably more concessions to left-wing thought than he is now. Notice how many times Miliband alludes to or mentions Cameron, while the prime minister's speech resolutely avoided the subject of Miliband altogether? The Downing Street team will hope that by pushing Miliband to the sidelines they can make him irrelevant and prevent him adopting a leadership role, as he did during the phone-hacking scandal. Miliband will be hoping that the public recognise his attack on Cameron's superficial and right-wing response to the riots.