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28 September 2010

The speech we’ve longed to hear from a Labour leader

Ed Miliband spoke the simple truth that Blair and Brown avoided: inequality harms us all.

By George Eaton

He took an awfully long time to get going but after an awkward introduction, complete with clunky jokes, Ed Miliband delivered the sort of thoughtful, progressive speech we’ve longed to hear from a Labour leader.

There was a wonderful Spirit Levelstyle attack on inequality, an eloquent defence of trade unionism and an unambiguous condemnation of the Iraq war — a necessary moment of catharsis for the party.

In one line he spoke the simple truth that neither Tony Blair nor Gordon Brown gave voice to: “The gap between rich and poor does matter. It doesn’t just harm the poor it harms us all.”

He vowed not to attack the coalition from the right on crime and civil liberties, a welcome break from Blairite type and a smart way of setting the Conservatives against each other. He reached out to centrist voters but steered clear of the sort of easy populism — “British jobs for British workers” — that returned to haunt Gordon Brown.

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His decision to rebut those tabloid epithets — “Red Ed”, “Forrest Gump”, “Wallace” — was a risky one. The public, many of whom won’t have heard these charges before, will inevitably wonder: ‘why was he called them in the first place?’, ‘what is he hiding?’. But his call for a “grown up debate” will have resonated with many.

Yet the speech was dangerously short of detail on the defining issue of this Parliament: the economy. His position on the deficit was an awkward hybrid of the Darling plan and the Balls plan. He failed to answer the key question: at what point does deficit reduction become a threat to growth? Miliband and his team need a better answer to this question by the time of the spending review. At the same time he wisely steered clear of dystopian predictions of a “double-dip recession” — a forecast that may yet return to haunt Ed Balls.

Fresh from a marathon leadership election, Ed Miliband was never going to have trouble playing his winning tunes on Iraq, civil liberties and a living wage. But he will soon be tested by events. Which cuts will he support? Which will he oppose? Which strikes will he support? Which will he oppose? In common with all his predecessors, it is his judgement that will count in the end.