Miliband's ambition is not yet matched by policy

He pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy but struggled to identify solutions.

Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference was the most ambitious delivered by a party leader for a generation. Last year he called time on New Labour but this year he called time on the entire neoliberal settlement that has governed the UK since the 1980s."It's all got to change," he cried, reasserting his ambition to do for the left what Thatcher did for the right. Just as she shifted the centre ground of British politics to the right, so he now hopes to pull it leftwards.

He turned his fire on Rupert Murdoch, Fred Goodwin (finally issuing a Labour apology for that knighthood), Southern Cross ("stripping assets for a quick buck") and the energy monopolies, vowing to break up "rigged markets" and, in his favoured phrase, take on "vested interests". No longer would Labour treat all businesses as equally worthy, he said, drawing a sharp distinction between "the producers" and "the predators". "For years as a country we have been neutral in that battle. They've been taxed the same. Regulated the same. Treated the same.Celebrated the same," he told the hall. "They won't be by me."

But while Miliband pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy he struggled to identify solutions. This was a remarkably policy-light speech, with the most memorable policy - a £6,000 cap on tuition fees - one that even he accepts is imperfect. He insisted that "it wouldn't be responsible to make promises I can't keep." But his critics will contend that Miliband still hasn't explained what the point of Labour is when there's no money to spend.

With this in mind, Miliband launched his first sustained attempt to convince voters that they could trust his party with their taxes. He promised that the next Labour government would "only spend what it can afford" and, echoing Ed Balls, conceded that he would not able to reverse many of the coalition's cuts. But he rightly refused to apologise for Labour's alleged "profligacy" and avoided legitimising the myth that overspending, rather than the recession, was to blame for the UK's mammoth deficit.

Whatever the outcome of the next election (and another hung parliament remains a distinct possibility), we can now say with some certainty that Miliband will never form a coalition with Nick Clegg. After Clegg lambasted him as one of Gordon Brown's "backroom boys", Miliband hit back, branding Clegg a "Tory" and mocking him for his broken tuition fees pledge.

But while his attacks on Clegg felt tired and predictable, his speech came to life when he directed his ire at David Cameron. In the most memorable passage of his address, he denounced Cameron's plan "to cut the 50p tax rate for people earning over £3,000 a week" and cried: "How dare they say we're all in it together." It was reminiscent of Cameron's own attack on Labour in 2009 ("how dare Labour lecture the Tories about poverty") and proved that Miliband is at his most effective when he is at his most passionate. Displaying his intellectual heft, Miliband channelled JK Galbraith and denounced the Prime Minister's belief that "you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer."

This was a serious, intellectually coherent and occasionally inspiring speech. But while Miliband has a departure point (neoliberalism) and a destination (social democracy), the route remains unclear. In time, he must identify and then articulate the policies needed to fulfil his tremendous ambition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Cabinet audit: what does the appointment of Andrea Leadsom as Environment Secretary mean for policy?

The political and policy-based implications of the new Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

A little over a week into Andrea Leadsom’s new role as Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and senior industry figures are already questioning her credentials. A growing list of campaigners have called for her resignation, and even the Cabinet Office implied that her department's responsibilities will be downgraded.

So far, so bad.

The appointment would appear to be something of a consolation prize, coming just days after Leadsom pulled out of the Conservative leadership race and allowed Theresa May to enter No 10 unopposed.

Yet while Leadsom may have been able to twist the truth on her CV in the City, no amount of tampering will improve the agriculture-related side to her record: one barely exists. In fact, recent statements made on the subject have only added to her reputation for vacuous opinion: “It would make so much more sense if those with the big fields do the sheep, and those with the hill farms do the butterflies,” she told an audience assembled for a referendum debate. No matter the livelihoods of thousands of the UK’s hilltop sheep farmers, then? No need for butterflies outside of national parks?

Normally such a lack of experience is unsurprising. The department has gained a reputation as something of a ministerial backwater; a useful place to send problematic colleagues for some sobering time-out.

But these are not normal times.

As Brexit negotiations unfold, Defra will be central to establishing new, domestic policies for UK food and farming; sectors worth around £108bn to the economy and responsible for employing one in eight of the population.

In this context, Leadsom’s appointment seems, at best, a misguided attempt to make the architects of Brexit either live up to their promises or be seen to fail in the attempt.

At worst, May might actually think she is a good fit for the job. Leadsom’s one, water-tight credential – her commitment to opposing restraints on industry – certainly has its upsides for a Prime Minister in need of an alternative to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); a policy responsible for around 40 per cent the entire EU budget.

Why not leave such a daunting task in the hands of someone with an instinct for “abolishing” subsidies  thus freeing up money to spend elsewhere?

As with most things to do with the EU, CAP has some major cons and some equally compelling pros. Take the fact that 80 per cent of CAP aid is paid out to the richest 25 per cent of farmers (most of whom are either landed gentry or vast, industrialised, mega-farmers). But then offset this against the provision of vital lifelines for some of the UK’s most conscientious, local and insecure of food producers.

The NFU told the New Statesman that there are many issues in need of urgent attention; from an improved Basic Payment Scheme, to guarantees for agri-environment funding, and a commitment to the 25-year TB eradication strategy. But that they also hope, above all, “that Mrs Leadsom will champion British food and farming. Our industry has a great story to tell”.

The construction of a new domestic agricultural policy is a once-in-a-generation opportunity for Britain to truly decide where its priorities for food and environment lie, as well as to which kind of farmers (as well as which countries) it wants to delegate their delivery.

In the context of so much uncertainty and such great opportunity, Leadsom has a tough job ahead of her. And no amount of “speaking as a mother” will change that.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.