Did Miliband reveal the theme of his Labour conference speech today?

The emphasis that Miliband put on building more houses in his TUC speech suggests that a big announcement could soon follow.

Rather than the predicted boos, Ed Miliband's speech to the TUC was met with polite applause. Miliband gave a fluent no-notes performance but the hall never quite came to life. 

There were no surprises in the speech, which was heavily trailed, but the most striking moment came when he departed from the script to speak at length about the need to build more houses. The emphasis that Miliband put on this, and the force with which he spoke, suggested to me that housing could be the centrepiece of his conference speech in two weeks' time. 

All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition's Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband called the "fundamental problem" of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils' borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected. 

As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour's pledge to "rebuild Britain" after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war. 

Elsewhere, Miliband reprised the "one nation" theme of his 2012 Labour conference speech, inviting delegates to applaud 19th-century Conservative prime minister Edward Stanley, "the man who first legislated to allow trade unions in this country" ("Red Ed"), and contrasting the moderate Tories of the past with David Cameron, "who writes you and your members off". 

As expected, he offered a principled defence of his plan to reform the Labour-union link so that members are required to opt-in to join the party, rather than being automatically affiliated by general secretaries. In a strong challenge to those who defend the status quo, he lamented that the "vast majority" of the current three million affiliates "play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only. That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision." But the remarks were met with stony silence. One senses that most delegates regard the reforms with indifference. 

The longest applause came when Miliband promised to crackdown on "exploitative" zero-hour contracts but in the Q&A that followed, several delegates demanded that he go further and impose an outright ban. On public spending, he didn't utter the 'c-word' - cuts - but spoke of how a Labour government would have to stick to "strict spending limits". In the Q&A, when asked if he was for or against austerity, Miliband replied: "we're not in favour of austerity. I'm absolutely clear about that" but added that Labour would need to reduce the large deficit it is likely to inherit.

By this, Miliband means that Labour would invest more now in infrastructure to stimulate growth, while reducing borrowing in medium-term. But while economically coherent, it risks becoming a politically muddled message and the Tories have already leapt on his declaration that he is "not in favour of austerity" as proof that Labour has already abandoned the "iron discipline" that he and Ed Balls spoke of in their speeches earlier this year. For Miliband, the issue of spending remains a political tightrope that he is liable to fall off at any moment. 

Ed Miliband speaks at last year's 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.