Miliband’s vision is bold – but now it’s time to convince the country

The Labour leader has made a decisive break with three decades of free-market orthodoxy. He must now

Social democracy is back. Equality matters. It is time for a new set of rules. Ed Miliband's speech to his party's conference in Liverpool on 27 September marked the final interment of New Labour's Faustian pact with Big Finance. Not since John Smith's speech in Brighton in 1993 has a Labour leader made such a forceful case for fairness and social justice. It was a decisive break with three decades of free-market orthodoxy.

“Social democrats today are defensive and apologetic," wrote the late historian and essayist Tony Judt in April 2010. Miliband, however, was bold and unapologetic in his hour-long critique of the take-what-you-can, something-for-nothing culture and his call for a new political and economic settlement; a "new bargain in our economy". He outlined an agenda that is Thatcher-esque, if not Thatcherite, in its sheer scope and ambition.

Set-piece speeches are not Miliband's strong suit. His aides might not like to admit it but the rest of us are well aware of the Labour leader's limitations as a rhetorician. Nonetheless, his weak delivery should not distract us from the radicalism contained within the speech: it was one that neither Tony Blair, Gordon Brown nor even David Miliband could have delivered - nor, for that matter, would have wanted to deliver.

The language was blunt and, at times, un­ashamedly populist. Can you imagine Blair, the power worshipper, decrying Britain's "closed circles", "cosy cartels" and "vested interests"? Or Brown, the friend of big business, denouncing the "dominance of the big energy companies" and their "rigged market"? Does anyone believe the more cautious and conservative elder Miliband brother would have derided the "asset strippers", "predators" and "fast buck" traders?

Party of grafters

The Oxford academic Marc Stears, a close friend of the younger Miliband, tells me that it was a "gutsy" speech. Challenging the conventional wisdom, standing up to corporate and financial elites, condemning the "runaway rewards at the top" - these are not themes that win you any friends in Britain's right-wing, corporate-owned press.

Nor are they just social-democratic or left-wing themes: they reflect the times we live in – "the new political sociology", in the words of the Institute for Public Policy Research - and the concerns of the mainstream majority, of Miliband's "squeezed middle". One line stood out, both in the clarity of its argument and directness of its attack on the leader of British conservatism: "Only David Cameron could believe that you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer." As Cameron's former "Red Tory" guru, Phillip Blond, concedes, it was "Ed's best attack line on Dave so far".

Miliband's mission is now as clear as it is electorally shrewd: to become the voice of the "grafters", the "hard-working majority"; to stand up for the little guy against the vested interests - the banks, the energy companies, the train operators.

So what next? Miliband has to sell his vision. Party conference speeches are a means of communicating a message to activists and journalists. Rarely do they have an impact on ordinary voters or determine elections. Who, now, remembers Blair's 1995 speech in Brighton? Or Cameron's 2006 effort in Bournemouth?

Blair and Cameron are natural - and theatrical - orators. Miliband isn't. So I remain baffled as to why he spent much of his first year in charge giving grand, set-piece speeches - at the Fabians, at Progress, at the RSA, at the TUC, at the Resolution Foundation. "I am sick of seeing him behind a bloody lectern," one of his shadow cabinet allies tells me. "Politics isn't about making speeches; it's about connecting with real people." Miliband, he says, has to "get off the platforms and get out and about".

Lonesome road

At the start of the year, one senior aide to Miliband told me that the new Labour leader planned to "get on a bus", leave London and tour the country; he would engage with a sceptical public, listen to the hopes and fears of ordinary voters and get a feel for old-style retail politics. It hasn't happened; but all is not lost.

Miliband's supporters may worry about his dire personal poll ratings but it is worth noting that Cameron squandered a 28-point lead in the polls (in September 2008), winning just 36 per cent of the vote in May 2010. Poll leads can be overrated. As the former Conservative Party treasurer Michael Ashcroft concluded earlier this year, after extensive polling and focus group work, Miliband "could get close to 40 per cent [of the vote] without needing to get out of bed".

That said, he still faces an uphill struggle. Only three of the Labour Party's nine postwar leaders have won a general election (Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Blair) and just one of them (Wilson) secured victory after a single term in opposition.

Miliband has to improve his image - and fast. People need to see him up close and personal; he needs to get out of the conference centre and into the town hall. And he needs a new, more supportive shadow cabinet. For much of the past year, the Labour leader has been his own outrider, making a lonely case for change.

He now needs his colleagues to start amplifying the arguments he made. As he remarked in his speech: "My top demand of my shadow cabinet, my party, my team is this: ambition."

Labour cannot afford to be complacent - but nor can it afford to be cautious. As the cuts begin to bite, Miliband's message about the need for reform, about "ripping up the rule book", will only increase in resonance. He must remain bold.

Mehdi Hasan is the New Statesman's senior editor (politics)