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Miliband frames himself as an anti-politician

The Labour leader presented himself as a man with the ambition and imagination to speak for an alienated public.

The Labour leader sought to present himself as a man with the ambition and imagination to speak for an alienated public.
David Cameron and Ed Miliband walk through parliament before the Queen's Speech today. Photograph: Getty Images.

Labour aides promised in advance that Ed Miliband's response to the Queen's Speech would not be a "traditional" one, and he was true to their word. Rather than delivering a limited and lighthearted reply, Miliband used the occasion to offer a grand and ambitious reflection on the anti-politics mood in the country.

He started with several well-received jokes, including at his own expense. Tory MP Penny Mourdaunt, who opened the debate with a fine and witty speech, "Should try wrestling a bacon sandwich live on national television," he quipped (a line that David Cameron saw fit to recycle in his response). It served as proof that self-deprecation is the modern politician's best form of defence.

In response to the Lib Dems' Annette Brooke, who followed Mourdaunt, he joked: "She voted against tuition fees, has described being in the coalition as 'terrible' and says the Lib Dem record on women MPs is 'dreadful.' By current Lib Dem standards, Mr Speaker, that apparently makes her a staunch loyalist." To further laughter, he added that after the European elections, "She can now boast that 100 per cent of Liberal Democrat MEPs are women."

But the mood soon turned as he warned that the recent elections showed that the Commons faces "A battle for relevance, legitimacy and standing in the eyes of the public." The "zombie parliament" line deployed by Labour this morning was nowhere to be seen; Miliband was striving for higher ground. Rather than addressing his "opponents across the despatch box", he fixed his sights on "an even bigger opponent": the belief among the public that "this House cannot achieve anything at all."

The initial good will towards him dissipated after he seized on interventions by Conservative MPs as exemplars of parliament's failings. He derided the "planted questions" from the government benches - "no wonder people hate politics" - and attacked those "shouting from a sedentary position". After Nigel Farage seized his insurgent crown last month, this was an attempt to claim it back. But if Miliband is to win a hearing, he will need to hold those on his own side to the same standard. Indeed, it took Cameron little time to note in his response that Ed Balls was indulging in exactly the kind of heckling he had denounced. He was also charged with committing the sin that voters loathe most - not giving a straight answer - by refusing to say whether Labour would raise National Insurance.

But the greatest challenge for Miliband is that, to many, he makes a profoundly unconvincing anti-politician. He served in the government expelled by voters just four years ago and has spent his entire career in the confines of Westminster and Whitehall. The rise of Farage has made it even harder for him to avoid being bracketed with Cameron and Clegg as part of the problem, not the solution.

Miliband cannot be accused of not offering answers. After announcing more policy than any opposition leader in recent history, he rattled off the bills that would feature in the first Queen's Speech of a Labour government: a Make Work Pay Bill to restore the link between national growth and family finances; a Banking Bill to increase lending to small businesses; a Community Bill to devolve power from Whitehall; an Immigration Bill "to stop workers being undercut"; a Consumers' Bill to freeze energy prices while the market is reset; a Housing Bill to ease the affordability crisis; and an NHS Bill to halt privatisation and make it easier to see GPs.

Whether he can persuade voters that these promises are no less credible coming from someone who is railing against the system from within, not without, will determine whether he succeeds.