Ed Miliband left the Labour party conference in Brighton in a stronger position than when he arrived. After a dismal summer for the party, his hour-long, conversational speech on Tuesday 24 September, delivered from memory and without notes, attempted to engage with most of the criticisms levelled at his deliberative and sometimes ponderous leadership. His good speech, as well as the sunny weather on the south coast, seemed to raise the morale of many Labour MPs, who had seemed pessimistic at the beginning of the conference.
Confronting accusations of a policy vacuum, Mr Miliband outlined a series of signature commitments aimed at easing what he and his colleagues call the “living standards crisis”: prices, he said, had risen faster than wages in 38 of the coalition’s 39 months. With his populist pledge to freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017 – resisted robustly by the energy companies, which warned of possible power shortages and blackouts – he attempted to address what polls show is one of voters’ greatest concerns. The pledge also offered a powerful dividing line with the Conservatives, who rejected the proposal out of hand. With this measure, the Labour leader has begun to articulate what he means by phrases such as “responsible capitalism” and signalled his intention to use the power of government to shape markets in favour of consumers.
Similarly bold were his promises on childcare and housing. His plan to require all primary schools to offer care from 8am to 6pm would benefit the economy by enabling more parents, particularly women, to return to full-time employment – a model successfully pursued in the Scandinavian countries. On housing, where the coalition has inflated demand through the Help to Buy scheme, Mr Miliband turned his attention to the fundamental problem of supply. His pledge to build 200,000 new homes a year by 2020 and to punish land-banking developers by forcing them to “use or lose” their land would, if implemented, go some way to mending Britain’s broken housing market. After so skilfully mobilising opposition to the “bedroom tax”, he was also sensible to pledge to repeal this punitive and unpopular measure.
However, in response to those who fear that he simply wishes to pursue what his brother, David Miliband, once characterised in these pages as a programme of “defensive social democracy”, he also spoke ambitiously of creating an integrated health and social care service and of winning a “race to the top” through a broad expansion of apprenticeships, more in line with the German model.
Yet, for Labour, the greatest challenge remains to persuade a sceptical electorate to favour it over the Conservatives when Mr Miliband’s poll ratings are so poor and the party is not trusted to manage the economy. Where the speech fell short was in its failure to reassure the public that Labour has learned from its past mistakes and can once again be entrusted with the nation’s finances.
The party’s perceived fiscal profligacy is perhaps the greatest obstacle to its election but Mr Miliband mentioned the deficit just once in his speech. Until Labour wins back economic trust – if, indeed, it can do so before the general election in 2015 – the danger is that voters will doubt its ability to deliver its ambitious and, in some cases, expensive policies of transformation without alienating business and again imperilling stability.
Last year, Mr Miliband’s bravura conference performance in Manchester, in which he evoked the spirit of Disraeli, raised hopes that Labour could establish itself as a government-in-waiting. Yet because of the party’s failure to sustain the momentum that followed and to flesh out the meaning of its leader’s “one nation” theme, this opportunity was wasted. With a sharper slogan – “Britain can do better than this” – and a set of emblematic policies, the shadow cabinet now has the makings of a coherent programme. Mr Miliband has reminded us again of his talents as a rhetorician but it is his party’s conduct in the next year that will determine whether he is rewarded with the chance to serve, or whether parliament will remain hung.