Ed Miliband's speech: A manifesto for Milibandism

The Labour leader chose to tackle questions of his leadership credentials head-on.

The leader has spoken - at considerable length and without notes, which remains an impressive technical feat. But the important function of Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour party this year was not to prove that he can orate effectively from memory (he did that last year) but to persuade people that he has an agenda for government.

The most common criticisms of the Miliband project from both inside and outside his party have been: (1) the lack of a compelling story about why Britain will need a Labour government in 2015 (2) a failure to win arguments over the economy and (3) doubts about whether Ed himself can be an effective advocate of change; does he look like a leader – and where would he lead?

Miliband tried to address each of those problems systematically. His approach was to tackle the leadership question head-on, setting out an account of the qualifications to be a good Prime Minister that better match his message and record than David Cameron’s. He stressed empathy (“walking in other people’s shoes”) unity and, one of the most memorable lines, standing up to the strong instead of standing up to the weak.

Miliband knows that people think the Tory leader looks more plausibly Prime Ministerial – incumbents generally do by virtue of, well, living in 10 Downing Street and the rest of it. He also knows the Tories will attack him personally and aggressively over the next few months on the basis that his perceived weakness is a drag on Labour’s poll ratings.

So the strategy, it seems, is to query the basis on which Cameron’s supposed strength stands. The Tory leader can be presented as tough only when the recipients of toughness are the weak and the vulnerable. His alleged capacity to lead is undermined by the charge that, on crucial moral choices, he sides with the wrong people: Rupert Murdoch; the tobacco lobby; millionaires.

That leads to the next stage of Miliband’s argument, which is that a Tory leader with the wrong values is presiding over the wrong kind of economy. This has been the theme of the conference, or rather the ambition has been to make it the theme. Other news and unwelcome blasts from the New Labour past have continually obstructed the message. The point Labour wants to get across is that the Tories’ claim to have rescued the economy is bogus and that the recovery will entrench unfairness and inequality. Miliband is working on the assumption that the pressures households face from a rising cost of living will make Cameron and George Osborne’s boasts of national salvation look arrogant and complacent. But Miliband went further – he argued that the inequality and injustice were a deliberate function of the Conservative economic strategy, not just unfortunate side-effects. He justified that claim on the grounds that Cameron’s “global race” is really a race to the bottom, depressing wages and scrapping employment rights to turn Britain into a brutal neo-Victorian sweatshop.

Having established that account of why the Tories are supposed to have forfeited their right to lead the country, Miliband set out some of the ideas he hopes will prove that Labour would do it better: lower bills, more homes, apprenticeships, a better NHS, some substantial measures aimed at rebutting the claim Labour has no big ideas, baked in with motherhood and apple pie. 

It was notable that Miliband mentioned none of his shadow cabinet colleagues and referred more to himself than to his party. There seems little doubt that this speech was an attempt at personal brand rehabilitation. He knows there is a problem with perceptions of his capabilities as a leader. Some people in the party think he would be better off promoting the broader and much stronger Labour brand, campaigning as the captain of a team or even chairman of the board. He has chosen very clearly not to do that. Instead, he wants to defy conventional expectations of what a Prime Ministerial figure looks like and wrest back from the Tories some control of what defines “strong leadership.” In a memorable passage in the speech he said he expected the Tories to make the general election campaign personal and invited Cameron to “be my guest”. The line, I’m told by someone who worked with Miliband on the speech, was one that the Labour leader had improvised in rehearsal. It was deemed more civil and understated than the brash Americanism “bring it on!”

These are minute details but the point is an important one. The things that have made Labour delegates at this conference most despondent are the fear that they are losing on the economy, that they are constantly fighting battles on Tory terms and that Ed simply doesn’t look the part, no matter how hard he tries. This speech was a very direct attempt to neutralise those anxieties – to set a new framework for how the economy and leadership are defined; to make it clear that Labour is being refashioned not just as "One Nation Labour" but as Miliband's Labour. It was a well-structured argument and he delivered it pretty well. The audience was enthused; Miliband’s exhausted-looking aides seem happy and relieved.

So mission accomplished? Well, probably yes, for today. The rhetoric was right – but so it was last year too. The challenge, as many Labour people have been saying all week, is now whether there is a strategy for pushing these new arguments – erecting this new framework for debate – outside the conference centre. Miliband has set out clearly how he wants his project to be defined and it is notably more coherent today than it was yesterday, which is a start. It will only be a successful speech if it remains just as coherent tomorrow and the day after that and in the weeks and months to come.

Ed Miliband waves as he stands with his wife Justine after giving his keynote speech at the annual Labour party conference. Image: Getty

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

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Love a good box set? Then you should watch the Snooker World Championships

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. 

People are lazy and people are impatient. This has always been so – just ask Moses or his rock – but as illustrated by kindly old Yahweh, in those days they could not simply answer those impulses and stroll on.

Nowadays, that is no longer so. Twitter, YouTube and listicles reflect a desire for complex and involved issues, expansive and nuanced sports – what we might term quality – to be condensed into easily digestible morsels for effort-free enjoyment.

There is, though, one notable exception to this trend: the box set. Pursuing a novelistic, literary sensibility, it credits its audience with the power of sentience and tells riveting stories slowly, unfolding things in whichever manner that it is best for them to unfold.

In the first episode of the first series of The Sopranos, we hear Tony demean his wife Carmela's irritation with him via the phrase “always with the drama”; in the seventh episode of the first series we see his mother do likewise to his father; and in the 21st and final episode of the sixth and final series, his son uses it on Carmela. It is precisely this richness and this care that makes The Sopranos not only the finest TV show ever made, but the finest artefact that contemporary society has to offer. It forces us to think, try and feel.

We have two principal methods of consuming art of this ilk - weekly episode, or week-long binge. The former allows for anticipation and contemplation, worthy pursuits both, but of an entirely different order to the immersion and obsession offered by the latter. Who, when watching the Wire, didn’t find themselves agreeing that trudat, it's time to reup the dishwasher salt, but we’ve run out, ain’t no thing. Losing yourself in another world is rare, likewise excitement at where your mind is going next.

In a sporting context, this can only be achieved via World Championship snooker. Because snooker is a simple, repetitive game, it is absorbing very quickly, its run of play faithfully reflected by the score.

But the Worlds are special. The first round is played over ten frames – as many as the final in the next most prestigious competition – and rather than the usual week, it lasts for 17 magical days, from morning until night. This bestows upon us the opportunity to, figuratively at least, put away our lives and concentrate. Of course, work and family still exist, but only in the context of the snooker and without anything like the same intensity. There is no joy on earth like watching the BBC’s shot of the championship compilation to discover that not only did you see most of them live, but that you have successfully predicted the shortlist.

It is true that people competing at anything provides compelling drama, emotion, pathos and bathos - the Olympics proves this every four years. But there is something uniquely nourishing about longform snooker, which is why it has sustained for decades without significant alteration.

The game relies on a steady arm, which relies on a steady nerve. The result is a slow creeping tension needs time and space to be properly enjoyed and endured. Most frequently, snooker is grouped with darts as a non-athletic sport, instead testing fine motor skills and the ability to calculate angles, velocity and forthcoming shots. However, its tempo and depth is more similar to Test cricket – except snooker trusts so much in its magnificence that it refuses to compromise the values which underpin it.

Alfred Hitchcock once explained that if two people are talking and a bomb explodes without warning, it constitutes surprise; but if two people are talking and all the while a ticking bomb is visible under the table, it constitutes suspense. “In these conditions,” he said, “The same innocuous conversation becomes fascinating because the public is participating in the scene. The audience is longing to warn the characters on the screen: ‘You shouldn't be talking about such trivial matters. There is a bomb beneath you and it is about to explode!’”

Such is snooker. In more or less every break, there will at some point be at least one difficult shot, loss of position or bad contact – and there will always be pressure. Add to that the broken flow of things – time spent waiting for the balls to stop, time spent prowling around the table, time spent sizing up the table, time spent cleaning the white, time spent waiting for a turn – and the ability for things to go wrong is constantly in contemplation.

All the more so in Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre. This venue, in its 40th year of hosting the competition, is elemental to its success. Place is crucial to storytelling, and even the word “Crucible” – whether “a ceramic or metal container in which metals or other substances may be melted or subjected to very high temperatures,” “a situation of severe trial”, or Arthur Miller’s searing play – conjures images of destruction, injustice and nakedness. And the actual Crucible is perhaps the most atmospheric arena in sport - intimate, quiet, and home to a legendarily knowledgeable audience, able to calculate when a player has secured a frame simply by listening to commentary through an earpiece and applauding as soon as the information is communicated to them.

To temper the stress, snooker is also something incredibly comforting. This is partly rooted in its scheduling. Working day and late-night sport is illicit and conspiratorial, while its presence in revision season has entire cohorts committing to “just one more quick frame”, and “just one more quick spliff”. But most powerfully of all, world championship snooker triggers memory and nostalgia, a rare example of something that hasn’t changed, as captivating now as it was in childhood.

This wistfulness is complemented by sensory pleasure of the lushest order. The colours of both baize and balls are the brightest, most engaging iterations imaginable, while the click of cue on ball, the clunk of ball on ball and the clack of ball on pocket is deep and musical; omnipresent and predictable, they combine for a soundtrack that one might play to a baby in the womb, instead of whale music or Megadeth.

Repeating rhythms are also set by the commentators, former players of many years standing. As is natural with extended coverage of repetitive-action games, there are numerous phrases that recur:

“We all love these tactical frames, but the players are so good nowadays that one mistake and your opponent’s in, so here he is, looking to win the frame at one visit ... and it’s there, right in the heart of the pocket for frame and match! But where’s the cue ball going! it really is amazing what can happen in the game of snooker, especially when we’re down to this one-table situation.”

But as omniscient narrators, the same men also provide actual insight, alerting us to options and eventualities of which we would otherwise be ignorant. Snooker is a simple game but geometry and physics are complicated, so an expert eye is required to explain them intelligibly; it is done with a winning combination of levity and sincerity.

The only essential way in which snooker is different is the standard of play. The first round of this year’s draw featured eight past winners, only two of whom have made it to the last four, and there were three second-round games that were plausible finals.

And just as literary fiction is as much about character as plot, so too is snooker. Nothing makes you feel you know someone like studying them over years at moments of elation and desolation, pressure and release, punctuated by TV confessions of guilty pleasures, such as foot massages, and bucket list contents, such as naked bungee jumping.

It is probably true that there are not as many “characters” in the game as once there were, but there are just as many characters, all of whom are part of that tradition. And because players play throughout their adult life, able to establish their personalities, in unforgiving close-up, over a number of years, they need not be bombastic to tell compelling stories, growing and undergoing change in the same way as Dorothea Brooke or Paulie Gualtieri.

Of no one is this more evident that Ding Junhui, runner-up last year and current semi-finalist this; though he is only 30, we have been watching him almost half his life. In 2007, he reached the final of the Masters tournament, in which he faced Ronnie O’Sullivan, the most naturally talented player ever to pick up a cue – TMNTPETPUAC for short. The crowd were, to be charitable, being boisterous, and to be honest, being pricks, and at the same time, O’Sullivan was playing monumentally well. So at the mid-session interval, Ding left the arena in tears and O’Sullivan took his arm in consolation; then when Ding beat O’Sullivan in this year’s quarter-final, he rested his head on O’Sullivan’s shoulder and exchanged words of encouragement for words of respect. It was beautiful, it was particular, and it was snooker.

Currently, Ding trails Mark Selby, the “Jester from Leicester” – a lucky escape, considering other rhyming nouns - in their best of 33 encounter. Given a champion poised to move from defending to dominant, the likelihood is that Ding will remain the best player never to win the game’s biggest prize for another year.

Meanwhile, the other semi-final pits Barry Hawkins, a finalist in 2013, against John Higgins, an undisputed great and three-time champion. Higgins looks likely to progress, and though whoever wins through will be an outsider, both are eminently capable of taking the title. Which is to say that, this weekend, Planet Earth has no entertainment more thrilling, challenging and enriching than events at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield.

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