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.

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In praise of the late developer

The success of late developers proves that our obsession with early achievement is wrong.

A fortnight ago, I fell into conversation with the head teacher of a local school. “You’ve got to create room for late developers,” he said. “The obsession with early attainment doesn’t suit most children.”

We were soon finishing each other’s sentences – talking about long-term confidence rather than short-term hothousing, how children don’t develop in a linear way, and the value of having transferable skills rather than a single focus from a young age.

What a shame, I reflected, that his message doesn’t reach a wider audience. We hear so much about prodigies and precociousness – Serena Williams and her pushy father, Tiger Woods and “tiger mothers” – and so little of the counter-argument: the high achievers who emerge at a slower pace in more balanced circumstances.

Our conversation ended when we both departed to watch England play Scotland in the Six Nations tournament. Only then did I learn that the head teacher’s son Huw Jones was playing in the centre for Scotland. He scored two tries, just as he did last autumn in his home debut against Australia.

Jones’s career is a tacit endorsement of his father’s philosophy. In his penultimate year at school, Huw was still playing mostly in the second XV. Five years on, he is a burgeoning talent on the world stage. The two facts are connected. Jones didn’t just overtake others; he also retained the naturalness that is often lost “in the system”.

As boys, he and his brother made up their own version of rugby practice: could the ­attacker sidestep and run past the defender without setting foot outside the five-metre line? They were just having fun, uncoached and unsupervised. But their one-on-one game was teaching the most valuable skill in rugby: the ability to beat defenders in confined spaces.

Jones had access to superb opportunities throughout – at home, at Canterbury rugby club and then at Millfield, the independent school in Somerset well known for producing sportsmen. But at Millfield, he was far from being a superstar. He seldom played “A-team” rugby. The message from home: just keep enjoying it and getting better and eventually your time will come.

There was a useful precedent. Matt Perry, who won 36 caps for England between 1997 and 2001, had been a “B-team” player at school. What matters is where you end up, not who leads the race at the age of 16. Jones also developed transferable skills by continuing to play other sports. “Don’t specialise too early,” was the mantra of Richard Ellison, the former England cricketer who taught at Millfield for many years.

When Jones was 18 and finally blossoming in the school’s first XV, rugby agents started to take an interest, promising to place him in the “academy” of a professional team. “But I’d seen so many kids take that route and seen how bored they got,” his father, Bill, reflects. So Bill advised his son to go abroad, to gain experience of new cultures and to keep playing rugby for fun instead of getting on the tracksuited professional treadmill.

So Jones took a teaching job in Cape Town, where he played men’s club rugby. Instead of entering the professional system, as one of a bland cohort of similar-aged “prospects”, he served his apprenticeship among players drawn from different backgrounds and ages. Sport was shown to be a matter of friendship and community, not just a career path.

The University of Cape Town spotted and recruited Jones, who helped it win the South African university competition. Only then, in 2014, did British professional rugby teams start to take a serious interest. Jones, however, was enjoying South Africa and stayed put, signing a contract with the Stormers in the Super Rugby tournament – the world’s leading club competition.

So, in the space of 18 months, Jones had gone from being a gap-year Brit with no formal ties to professional rugby to playing against the world’s best players each week. He had arrived on the big stage, following a trajectory that suited him.

The level of competition had escalated rapidly but the tries kept coming. Scotland, by now closely monitoring a player qualified by birth, gave him his spectacular home debut against Australia last autumn – remarkable but not surprising. Finding his feet ­instantly on each new stage is the pattern of his career.

Those two qualities – first, instinctive ­try-scoring; second, a lack of vertigo – are connected. Amid all the jargon of professional sport, perhaps the most important qualities – freshness, ingenuity and the gift of surprise – are undervalued. Yet all of these rely on skills honed over many years – honed, but not dulled.

Shoehorning all young players into rigid, quasi-professional systems long before they are ready comes with risks. First, we seldom hear from the child prodigies who faded away (often damaged psychologically). Many players who are pushed too hard miss their natural learning arc; the narrative of their ambition, or the ambition imposed on them by parents, is often out of step with their physical and psychological growth. Second, systems have a habit of overestimating their contribution: they become blind to outsiders.

In a quiet way, Jones is a case study in evolved education and not just sport: a talented performer who was given time and space to find his voice. The more we learn about talent, as David Epstein demonstrated in The Sports Gene, the clearer it becomes that focusing on champion 11-year-olds decreases the odds of producing champion adults. Modern science has reinforced less frantic and neurotic educational values; variety and fun have their virtues.

Over the long term, put your faith not in battery farming but instead, in Bill Jones’s phrase, in “free-range children”.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution