10 thoughts on Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour conference
It’s time to ditch the ‘speaking without notes’ gimmick. Last year, it was fresh and unexpected. This year, I’m not sure that the hours of practice couldn’t have been better spent elsewhere. There were a couple of occasions where you wondered whether he was going to forget stuff. And I thought he muddled ‘Britain can do better than this’ with ‘We are Britain. We can do better than this.’ Ed Miliband is far better at joke telling than he used to be, but yesterday was not only a time for oratory. He needed to show he was prime ministerial. A serious-looking podium may have been a good prop.
He spoke well to the conference but not necessarily to the country. There was lots of applause within the conference centre. I watched the speech in the Brighton Odeon. There were lots of Labour Party members but also people like me who were representing their organisation – people of all parties and no party. As such individual lines were applauded by individuals. The most popular line was the one on the bedroom tax. Neil Kinnock once made a brilliant speech to the Labour conference (not his set piece leader’s speech and I can’t find it on the web) which talked about delegates to the party needing to be able to ‘justify the way that you vote: not here in the warm comfortable circles of the Labour Party conference’ but at home, in the streets, in your workplace, to your family, wherever you go. Apologies if that’s too inaccurate a paraphrase. (The fictional Matt Santos used a similar device in the West Wing episode, 2162 Votes.) That and Kinnock’s famous Militant speech spoke to the country, by reassuring them that the Labour party should expect to have to do the right thing and be answerable to the community. Ed Miliband didn’t challenge his party to listen to the country.
The contrast with New Labour is perhaps greatest when talking about vested interests. Tony Blair realised that if you snuggled up to vested interests they would let you run do a few social democratic things. Go too far and it’s A Very British Coup. The media are already murdering Miliband after Leveson. Now the energy companies will be there too. Extremely high risk. Where I thought he could have gone further (and challenged his party) was to say that the Labour Party would now be about challenging all vested interests, including those in the public sector. The idea would be to make Jo Citizen, fed up with their constant battle with bureaucracy, better-placed to challenge public or private officialdom.
The bit on Syria was jaw-dropping. He’s taken some unfair stick for David Cameron’s inability to control his own party, but here Miliband showed some brass neck, taking the credit for stopping the action. It may be true that he stopped a war, but his line at the time wasn’t that it should be stopped but that the arguments should be made more carefully. It’s an important distinction.
I liked his reference to his brother. His line that standing for the Labour leadership was ‘hard’ for his family but the right thing to do was pitched well. I have never understood the argument that David Miliband had the right, as the first born, to be the only Miliband on the leadership ballot. But Ed Miliband’s enemies have painted that picture effectively. Miliband will never really get a fair hearing from those of the right (and possibly some Blairites), but his point that it was a brave but reasonable thing to do will perhaps reasonate with the undecided.
It’s right to back small businesses but complicating the tax code for £450 per small business seems like a lot of work for not much. I’m not going to discuss policy in this post, but to build up the reform and then give a fairly low figure will have disappointed SME owners.
There was a lot of (not very defined) policy but less of the analysis behind it. Leaders’ speeches used to include a lot more, well, argument. From Tony Blair onwards we lost argument in favour of short, verbless soundbites. It’s a tightrope for Miliband: too much analysis and he can be slammed as a policy wonk, but too little and you look like a lightweight. If you’re bright you may as well show it, as Toby Ziegler would say.
Mess? What mess? At both Coalition conferences there will be much talk of ‘the mess Labour left’. Miliband absolutely had to take that on. He did so on the NHS but needs to go further, for two reasons. First, this message tells people who backed Labour in 1997, 2001 and 2005 that they weren’t stupid, they were part of a government that achieved x or y and perhaps should give Labour another try. Second, of course, that the more Labour point out that they know they made mistakes, they are painting their 1997-2010 government as failed – which is meat and drink to the Coalition.
Macho Miliband has legs. David Cameron will, no doubt, use his favourite themes next week in his response to Miliband’s speech. But the ‘Be my guest’ line was confident and cocky. David Cameron always comes off badly when he attempts a similar approach.
The story of Cathy Murphy didn’t work (for me). Personal stories are good, and Scottish independence will be won or lost on how they resonate. But while I’m delighted that Cathy is on the mend, I don’t know that our constitutional arrangements should be made to fit her case. Put it another way: I believe in a united UK. That isn’t because of Cathy.