Miliband at his best and at his boldest

The Labour leader delivered his most confident and effective speech to date.

"Ed speaks human", his supporters used to say, and today Ed Milband proved that he can. Speaking without notes for more than an hour, this was the best and most relaxed speech he has delivered since becoming Labour leader. The jokes were funny, the message was hopeful, and the attack lines were lethal. Returning repeatedly to the theme of "one nation", he suggested that while David Cameron had failed to live up to this tradition, he could. His "faith" (the other leitmotif) was, he said, not a religious one, but one that the religious would recognise all the same. It was defined by the belief that "we have a duty to leave the world a better place".

From there, he argued that the Tories, both heartless and hopeless, were set to leave Britain a worse place. The government's biggest mistakes - the NHS reorganisation ("you can't trust the Tories with the NHS"), the abolition of the 50p tax rate, the devotion to austerity - were all ruthlessly recalled. As, inevitably, was Andrew Mitchell's run-in with the police. But while the Lib Dems sought to make light of the incident ("my fellow plebs," Danny Alexander quipped), Miliband angrily brandished it as evidence of why the Tories could never be a "one nation" government.

Fears that the speech would be jargonistic and wonkish were dispatched ("predistribution" was nowhere to be found) as the Labour leader expressed himself in clear, accessible terms. "If the medicine's not working," he said of the economy, "you need to change the medicine. And you need to change the doctor too." And he vowed that while Labour would be forced to take tough decisions in office, he would never cut taxes for the richest, while raising them for the poorest - "those with the broadest shoulders will always bear the greatest burden." He could not wish for a more potent dividing line with Cameron's party.

But while Miliband was clearer than ever about his differences with the Tories, he also extended an olive branch to their supporters. In one of the most effective passages, he declared that he understood why they voted Conservative and why they "turned away from the last Labour government". But now that the country was back in recession and borrowing more than last year, Cameron no longer deserved the benefit of the doubt. With an eye to the right, Miliband also acknowledged that a Labour government would have to cut spending - "we've got to live within our means" - and declared that, while he would do everything possible to help the unemployed, those who could work had a "responsibility" to do so. As for the Lib Dems, Miliband, more in sorrow than in anger, lamented that the party behind the 1909 People's Budget had supported the "millionaire's budget" of 2012.

While light on policy, the speech successfully outlined a vision of a fairer, more generous society. The banks would "serve the country", rather than the country serving the banks, the "free market" in the NHS would end, and the "two nations" - the rich and the rest - would be brought together. Displaying his new-found confidence, Miliband recalled his "predators and producers" refrain, adding that "one year on, people know what I was talking about".

After this speech, the Tories will no longer be able to console themselves with the thought that while Labour rides high, Miliband is unelectable. Once seen as a drag on his party, the Labour leader will now be recognised as an asset.

Labour leader Ed Miliband acknowledges the applause as he delivers his speech to delegates at the Labour conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.