The bar was set high, and Ed Miliband has cleared it

"An audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister."

The Labour leader took a risk today. There was a technical risk: he spoke without notes, which can go wrong in many ways. And the speech was long, which exponentially increases the danger of stumbling and losing the audience. But that is a small practical obstacle compared to the tactical gamble that his speech represented, which was – in effect – advertising itself as an audition before the country for the post of Prime Minister.

He didn’t set it out in quite those terms, but throughout the week his team has been allowing the idea to float around that this would be a defining piece of oration. The Miliband camp took the highly hazardous step of acknowledging that there had been flaws in the way their candidate presented himself and admitting that voters are under-whelmed by the Labour leader – or downright dismissive. So expectations were ramped up, which is the opposite of what usually happens. (The standard line at these conferences is “it’s only a speech, why is everyone so excited, of course it’s not a make or break moment.” Etc.)

So the Miliband operation set the bar high. Luckily for them, the Labour leader appears to have cleared it. He seemed much more confident than he has done on similar occasions in the past; much more in control of the mood in the room and much more assertive in delivering his message. He got a few good laughs in the right places. His theme - “One Nation” - was a pretty audacious raid on Tory language and, as a fusion of traditional left appeals to solidarity and a patriotic idiom more commonly associated with the right, it clearly has potential as a platform to reach out to a wide section of the electorate. His aides are busy now describing it as a radical vision. (That, of course, is something they always do.)

The obvious criticism was that Miliband is still travelling very light on policy and still skirts over the question of tricky spending pledges. It wasn’t exactly a macho demonstration of tough choices and a trampling of party shibboleths. (That really isn’t Miliband’s style.) He is wide open to the charge of policy flimsiness. No doubt the defence will come out that David Cameron was no more heavily freighted with practical policy at an equivalent point in his time in opposition. The mid-term challenge is to attract voters attention and sustain their interest in a way that makes them think they might be looking at their next Prime Minister. That was the explicit task that Ed Miliband set himself this week. Did he pass the audition? Too early to tell. But I suspect the party will come away more confident that they can talk about Prime Minister Miliband and the Conservatives will be a little bit less complacent in their assumption that no one is listening.

Labour Party leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause after delivering his keynote on October 02, 2012 Photograph: Getty Images

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.