Nearly all media coverage of Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference last Tuesday focused on what he missed. Miliband – certain wings of the media have argued – did not just miss out specific policies on immigration and deficit, but has also missed the opportunity to ‘rally the troops’ ahead of next May’s general election. Coverage has asked whether Miliband was convincing, who he wanted to speak to, and what policies he was proposing. But Tuesday’s speech was about more than this. It was, in effect, the culmination of four years of careful storytelling, of a narrative Miliband has been crafting since becoming leader of the opposition in 2010. The Labour party now faces the question of just how credible the electorate think that Miliband’s story is.
We need to look back to 2012 for the start of the story. This was the debut of One Nation, with the phrase mentioned no fewer than 46 times during his party conference speech that year. The narrative was wholeheartedly endorsed by party members and activists, invigorating the party faithful to get on board with Miliband’s new drive forward. Throughout, Miliband has worked to make himself a protagonist in the story by personifying the One Nation concept – hence the much-ridiculed references to the Gareths, Josephines and Xiomaras, as well as his emphasis on his childhood, his father, his ‘ordinary’ schooling. And it works. Responses in the hall to his speeches since 2012 have been significantly warmer than we are led to believe by some media commentators.
However, this personalisation has its disadvantages for Miliband. The almost-Shakespearian victory over his brother, his policy-wonk background, the Wallace cartoons, The Sun photo op, the bacon sandwich – all have had their impact on his image not just as Labour party leader, but as a potential prime minister.
Miliband’s challenge now is to move Labour forwards through a stronger performance, with an election-winning set of policies that will keep the party faithful on-board, as well as see off the threat from UKIP. In narrative terms, he needs to make room in the story for those ‘unfashionable’ Labour ideas that have lain by the wayside since the 2010: social democracy, the Third Way, 1945 statism, trade unionism, green politics.
Labour’s policy proposals on energy, housing, the minimum wage, bank reform, apprenticeships, decentralization and especially the NHS are best seen as attention-grabbing plot-twists; they appeal to most strands of the party and use high emotion – the defining feature of party politics since the advent of New Labour. Emotion was also the reason for the central role of the NHS at this conference, including the reaction to 91-year old Harry Leslie Smith’s speech. Hence, perhaps, Miliband’s crucial memory lapse when it came to mentioning immigration and the deficit in his speech. These two issues prompt negative emotional responses from the party faithful and put Miliband in an uncomfortable ideological position.
The next few months will of course be decisive, but the future success of the Labour party next May is not simply dependent on promoting good and persuasive politics; it is to do that as a set of manifesto commitments which grow out of the evolving party narrative of the last five years. Even more importantly, Ed Miliband must ‘perform’ success to win success. Manchester 2014 was less a post-2015 policy offer than a reorientation of the party. Now, he must ‘perform’ strong, detailed policy to overcome the continuing public confusion about what he stands for and indeed, who exactly he is. Only then can Miliband have a chance to lead Labour into victory.
Professor John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. He is currently completing a two-year study of UK political leadership, with a focus on the narrative of Ed Miliband’s leadership.