ED MILIBAND’S inaugural leaders’ speech will not be remembered for its rhetorical flair. There was none of the barrister’s flourish that characterised Tony Blair’s excellent performances. For all its talk of optimism, it lacked the hopeful oratory that Barack Obama offered the US electorate in 2008. When David Cameron gave his first conference speech, the Tory party knew they had a leader for keeps, but Labour is still unsure. It was overly long, with a few too many gaffes. The jokes were barely passable, delivered by a man who knows little about comic timing.
This was not a washout, however – far from it. Labour’s new leader did exactly what he needed to. Miliband, virtually unknown off the Westminster stage, had to give the public a sense of himself. The passages on his parents’ persecution at the hands of the Nazis were useful in providing a political back story, something he did far more successfully than Gordon Brown (no mean feat when your father was a Marxist intellectual, not a protestant minister). Still, it’s hard to plead strong family ties when you’ve just knifed your elder brother in the back.
BIG BAD BUSINESS
He managed to articulate what he stands for more clearly than Cameron did in the election campaign, with his talk of the “Big Society”, a concept that continues to puzzle voters. There is no doubt that Miliband’s leadership will take the party leftwards. He championed the low-paid, but had only accusations and recriminations for highly-remunerated bankers and company executives. Small firms and entrepreneurs are Labour’s friends, he said, but big business is not. It is simply impossible to imagine these sentiments from Messrs Mandelson, Blair and even Brown, but we live in quite different times. Envy is back.
The speech was firmly pitched at the centre ground, however, or at least Miliband’s version of it. Red Ed? “Come off it,” retorted the new leader. He spoke with pride of a failing local school that improved after it was taken over by an academy sponsor; promised to be tough on crime; and admitted the party had lost its reputation for economic credibility by conceding he had to win it back. On the deficit, however, he prevaricated, giving just mealy-mouthed support for former chancellor Alistair Darling’s plan to halve it in four years.
“I was elected to be leader, and lead I will,” Miliband told the delegates, peppering his speech with hard truths for the right and left of the party. The shadow cabinet sat in stony silence as he said they were wrong to go to war in Iraq while the union barons looked incredulous as he distanced himself from their calls for strikes. Labour would have cut jobs in the public sector if they had won power he said, meaning he cannot oppose every redundancy. The infirm and disabled must be protected, but the able must work, he added, using exactly the same language employed by the coalition. Tory welfare secretary Iain Duncan Smith, a bête noire of the left, got the nearest thing to a vote of confidence that a leader of the opposition can give to a government minister. He is the first Labour leader in recent times to admit the party failed its working class members with its handling of mass EU immigration.
Miliband’s version of the centre ground differs from Tony Blair’s and David Cameron’s, however. This was a speech for the “mainstream majority”, people on low and middle incomes – not middle England. Aspirational voters in the South and East Anglia – the very people who deliver general election victories – will not be impressed.
As a politician who learnt his trade at the feet of one Gordon Brown, the speech would have been incomplete without those famous dividing lines. Although he barely acknowledged the deficit – the political issue du jour – he promised a strategy for growth, a reason to be optimistic. Fiscally irresponsible but politically shrewd, this tactic will work. Miliband will try to paint coalition ministers as grey, autocratic cutters without vision: “You were the optimists once but now all you offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what we can achieve.”
Prime Minister Brown – the Tories’ biggest electoral asset – has gone. Miliband, for all his flaws, is a more serious opponent. They write him off at their peril. firstname.lastname@example.org
GRAEME LEACH | INSTITUTE OF DIRECTORS
"Ed Miliband says that he wants Labour to be the ‘party of enterprise and small business’. How are these sentiments reconcilable with a commitment to new employment regulations for agency workers and a large hike in the minimum wage? Both measures would hurt small and large businesses, not support them. It is early days, but we detect a drift away from New Labour’s efforts to talk up a pro-enterprise agenda."
RICHARD LAMBERT | CBI
"The message of this speech is that Ed Miliband wants to position himself on the centre ground of politics. He stressed that Labour must win back fiscal credibility by the next election and that it must build prosperity, as well as distribute it. Companies will worry about some of the issues he raised. For example, the living wage, agency workers and the bank levy. But he was careful not to get into detail."
PAUL KENNY | GMB UNION
"It was a fantastic and inspiring speech. No one can be in any doubt that the Labour Party has a new, real leader in touch with people – a new generation is in town. The speech provides a first glimpse for the British people of a great new leader, who is humble, honest, dignified and is not afraid to take on vested interests of all kind for a better Britain."