Miliband's conference speech: what the papers say

What the commentators have to say about the Labour leader's speech in Liverpool yesterday.

Guardian

Jonathan Freedland says that the content of Miliband's speech was spot on, but that it doesn't matter because the public think he is "weird".

Ed Miliband did what the professional speechwriters always say you should do. He presented an argument, rather than a laundry list. He did not dole out random policy nuggets, with a bit on foreign policy thrown in, in order to touch every base. Instead he made a case, arguing that the values cherished by British society are not reflected in the ethics that underpin our economy.

. . .

Put simply, my fear is that you can make all the speeches and policy statements you like - carefully devising a strategy on this and crafting a narrative on that - but what matters more are shallow considerations of looks, demeanour, speech patterns and biography. That, in short, it is personality, not policy, that counts.

Times

Daniel Finkelstein (£) agrees that one of Miliband's main problems is the public's initial reaction to him -- drawing a comparison to William Hague -- but adds that he is too left-wing.

Instant reaction to Ed Miliband may not be fair (I don't think it is) but it is very powerful. Shown clips of the Labour leader, focus groups members start shaking their heads and saying "no". When asked what they think about having him as prime minister, they often laugh.

. . .

I don't believe that Mr Miliband is very left-wing, just that he is a tiny bit too left-wing. A leader can't fake his basic politics . . . He is reasonable and moderate, but he is also firmly a social democrat, steeped in the writings of the Left, accepting much of its analysis and regarding equality as his priority. And so, inevitably, he will shift the party to the left. That's what he did in his speech. . . Elections are won on the centre ground, and the centre ground is where it is, not where you want it to be.

Independent

Yes, Miliband did move to the left in this speech, says Steve Richards -- but this was a brave move. Its success depends on whether he can match it with concrete policy suggestions.

His speech had similarities with the one made by Cameron early in his leadership in which he set out why he was an optimist, wanting to let the sun shine through. I recall writing against virtually every paragraph of that address a one word question: How? Miliband's speech was similarly light on policy. What form would his more active state take? The biggest challenge always in politics is to link values with precise policy commitments that have broad appeal. In identifying the ending of the old lightly regulated era, Miliband moves with the tide of history, a break at least as big as the collapse of the old corporatist consensus in the late-1970s. That is the easy bit. Coming up with policies that unite his party and appeal to voters is much more challenging.

Telegraph

Predictably, the Telegraph does not find much to comment in Miliband's speech. An editorial argues that his ideas were wrong (except where he praised Margaret Thatcher) and that he missed an opportunity to rethink the centre-left.

Overall, Mr Miliband's demand for a new morality in public life has an alarmingly authoritarian edge. In the one rather startling outburst of honesty, he praised the Thatcher reforms of the Eighties - the sale of council houses, the deep cuts in tax rates, the new trade union laws - but then asserted that these reforms were often "based on the wrong values". That is sheer sophistry.

. . .

In truth, yesterday represented a retreat into the comfort zone: the loud boos that greeted the mention of Tony Blair - Labour's most successful leader by far - showed that clearly enough. Mr Miliband had the opportunity to show that he is bringing fresh and radical thinking to the centre-Left. He flunked it.

Financial Times

John Kay identifies a broader challenge facing the left, which Miliband must tackle if he wants to regain office:

Few voters were ever much interested in the old rhetoric of socialism, and they have equally little interest in the new rhetoric of rights. Support forsocial security is based not on recognition of claims to entitlement but on considerations of solidarity, sympathy and desert - there but for the grace of God go I.

. . .

So there is a division within parties of the left between those who cherish human rights, multi-culturalism and the environment, and the majority of their supporters.

 

Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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