The leader has spoken – at considerable length and without notes, which remains an impressive technical feat. But the important function of Ed Miliband’s keynote address to the Labour party this year was not to prove that he can orate effectively from memory (he did that last year) but to persuade people that he has an agenda for government.
The most common criticisms of the Miliband project from both inside and outside his party have been: (1) the lack of a compelling story about why Britain will need a Labour government in 2015 (2) a failure to win arguments over the economy and (3) doubts about whether Ed himself can be an effective advocate of change; does he look like a leader – and where would he lead?
Miliband tried to address each of those problems systematically. His approach was to tackle the leadership question head-on, setting out an account of the qualifications to be a good Prime Minister that better match his message and record than David Cameron’s. He stressed empathy (“walking in other people’s shoes”) unity and, one of the most memorable lines, standing up to the strong instead of standing up to the weak.
Miliband knows that people think the Tory leader looks more plausibly Prime Ministerial – incumbents generally do by virtue of, well, living in 10 Downing Street and the rest of it. He also knows the Tories will attack him personally and aggressively over the next few months on the basis that his perceived weakness is a drag on Labour’s poll ratings.
So the strategy, it seems, is to query the basis on which Cameron’s supposed strength stands. The Tory leader can be presented as tough only when the recipients of toughness are the weak and the vulnerable. His alleged capacity to lead is undermined by the charge that, on crucial moral choices, he sides with the wrong people: Rupert Murdoch; the tobacco lobby; millionaires.
That leads to the next stage of Miliband’s argument, which is that a Tory leader with the wrong values is presiding over the wrong kind of economy. This has been the theme of the conference, or rather the ambition has been to make it the theme. Other news and unwelcome blasts from the New Labour past have continually obstructed the message. The point Labour wants to get across is that the Tories’ claim to have rescued the economy is bogus and that the recovery will entrench unfairness and inequality. Miliband is working on the assumption that the pressures households face from a rising cost of living will make Cameron and George Osborne’s boasts of national salvation look arrogant and complacent. But Miliband went further – he argued that the inequality and injustice were a deliberate function of the Conservative economic strategy, not just unfortunate side-effects. He justified that claim on the grounds that Cameron’s “global race” is really a race to the bottom, depressing wages and scrapping employment rights to turn Britain into a brutal neo-Victorian sweatshop.
Having established that account of why the Tories are supposed to have forfeited their right to lead the country, Miliband set out some of the ideas he hopes will prove that Labour would do it better: lower bills, more homes, apprenticeships, a better NHS, some substantial measures aimed at rebutting the claim Labour has no big ideas, baked in with motherhood and apple pie.
It was notable that Miliband mentioned none of his shadow cabinet colleagues and referred more to himself than to his party. There seems little doubt that this speech was an attempt at personal brand rehabilitation. He knows there is a problem with perceptions of his capabilities as a leader. Some people in the party think he would be better off promoting the broader and much stronger Labour brand, campaigning as the captain of a team or even chairman of the board. He has chosen very clearly not to do that. Instead, he wants to defy conventional expectations of what a Prime Ministerial figure looks like and wrest back from the Tories some control of what defines “strong leadership.” In a memorable passage in the speech he said he expected the Tories to make the general election campaign personal and invited Cameron to “be my guest”. The line, I’m told by someone who worked with Miliband on the speech, was one that the Labour leader had improvised in rehearsal. It was deemed more civil and understated than the brash Americanism “bring it on!”
These are minute details but the point is an important one. The things that have made Labour delegates at this conference most despondent are the fear that they are losing on the economy, that they are constantly fighting battles on Tory terms and that Ed simply doesn’t look the part, no matter how hard he tries. This speech was a very direct attempt to neutralise those anxieties – to set a new framework for how the economy and leadership are defined; to make it clear that Labour is being refashioned not just as “One Nation Labour” but as Miliband’s Labour. It was a well-structured argument and he delivered it pretty well. The audience was enthused; Miliband’s exhausted-looking aides seem happy and relieved.
So mission accomplished? Well, probably yes, for today. The rhetoric was right – but so it was last year too. The challenge, as many Labour people have been saying all week, is now whether there is a strategy for pushing these new arguments – erecting this new framework for debate – outside the conference centre. Miliband has set out clearly how he wants his project to be defined and it is notably more coherent today than it was yesterday, which is a start. It will only be a successful speech if it remains just as coherent tomorrow and the day after that and in the weeks and months to come.