Rather than the predicted boos, Ed Miliband’s speech to the TUC was met with polite applause. Miliband gave a fluent no-notes performance but the hall never quite came to life.
There were no surprises in the speech, which was heavily trailed, but the most striking moment came when he departed from the script to speak at length about the need to build more houses. The emphasis that Miliband put on this, and the force with which he spoke, suggested to me that housing could be the centrepiece of his conference speech in two weeks’ time.
All three parties have identified housing as one of the defining issues of the moment but while the coalition’s Help To Buy scheme is inflating demand, it does little to address what Miliband called the “fundamental problem” of supply. Labour has already said that it would bring forward £10bn of infrastructure investment to build 400,000 affordable homes and is likely to pledge to build a million over five years, a level closer to that required to meet need. In part, this could be achieved by removing the cap on councils’ borrowing, a move that Boris Johnson and Vince Cable have been pushing for but which George Osborne has consistently rejected.
As a policy, a mass housebuilding programme ticks all the boxes: it is easy to explain and offers a powerful dividing line with the Tories. It would stimulate growth and employment, help to bring down long-term borrowing (for every £100 that is invested in housebuilding £350 is generated in return) and reduce welfare spending. It would be a literal fulfilment of Labour’s pledge to “rebuild Britain” after austerity, just as the 1945 government did after the war.
Elsewhere, Miliband reprised the “one nation” theme of his 2012 Labour conference speech, inviting delegates to applaud 19th-century Conservative prime minister Edward Stanley, “the man who first legislated to allow trade unions in this country” (“Red Ed”), and contrasting the moderate Tories of the past with David Cameron, “who writes you and your members off”.
As expected, he offered a principled defence of his plan to reform the Labour-union link so that members are required to opt-in to join the party, rather than being automatically affiliated by general secretaries. In a strong challenge to those who defend the status quo, he lamented that the “vast majority” of the current three million affiliates “play no role in our party. They are affiliated in name only. That wasn’t the vision of the founders of our party. I don’t think it’s your vision either. And it’s certainly not my vision.” But the remarks were met with stony silence. One senses that most delegates regard the reforms with indifference.
The longest applause came when Miliband promised to crackdown on “exploitative” zero-hour contracts but in the Q&A that followed, several delegates demanded that he go further and impose an outright ban. On public spending, he didn’t utter the ‘c-word’ – cuts – but spoke of how a Labour government would have to stick to “strict spending limits”. In the Q&A, when asked if he was for or against austerity, Miliband replied: “we’re not in favour of austerity. I’m absolutely clear about that” but added that Labour would need to reduce the large deficit it is likely to inherit.
By this, Miliband means that Labour would invest more now in infrastructure to stimulate growth, while reducing borrowing in medium-term. But while economically coherent, it risks becoming a politically muddled message and the Tories have already leapt on his declaration that he is “not in favour of austerity” as proof that Labour has already abandoned the “iron discipline” that he and Ed Balls spoke of in their speeches earlier this year. For Miliband, the issue of spending remains a political tightrope that he is liable to fall off at any moment.