Ed Miliband arrived on stage for his speech badly needing to rouse a conference that has been universally (and accurately) described as “flat”. The polls continue to show Labour on course for victory at the general election, but the opposition has not looked or sounded like a party on the brink of government.
Miliband’s 65-minute address, again delivered without notes (a signature trick that strategists say he felt duty-bound to repeat), was politically astute and coherent, but it rarely lifted and moved the hall. This was not a speech to match the bravura performances of 2012 and 2013.
That the address nevertheless improved as it went on is a reflection of how poorly it started. After wisely opening with a passage on ISIS, declaring that Britain would never turn its back on internationalism (a rebuke to those who wrongly labelled him an isolationist after Syria), he became bogged down in turgid anecdotes about the voters he had met around the country. The aim was to present Miliband as an empathetic leader, one more in touch with the public than David Cameron, but the repeated references to “Gareth” and “Colin” (reminscient of David Cameron’s performance in the first 2010 TV debate) suggested someone straining too hard for authenticity.
The six “national goals” announced in the speech as part of Labour’s “long-term plan” for the next decade, read well on paper, but they left the speech resembling a box-ticking exercise. The hall eventually rose to its feet when Miliband turned to NHS (as it always does), the territory, along with living standards, on which Labour has wisely decided to fight the election. With the aid of a mansion tax, a levy on tobacco firms, and a crackdown on tax avoidance, he pledged to establish a £2.5bn fund to protect the health service: socialist redistribution of the most politically potent kind.
There is no issue on which Labour polls better than the NHS – and no public institution that is more cherished. As one Tory MP recently told me: “the NHS makes socialists of us all”. By pledging to use limited resources to protect the health service, Labour aims to raise its salience even further. If one of the defining questions at the general election is “which party do you trust with the NHS?” there is a good chance that the voters will send Miliband to No.10 That Cameron, who once summed up his political priorities as “N-H-S”, has now been told by Lynton Crosby to avoid even mentioning the issue (it only helps Labour), makes this exquisitely uncomfortable territory for him.
Smart, too, was the decision to hit the wealthy (“our donors would never put up with it,” said Cameron of a Mansion Tax) and the cigarette companies (whom Crosby once lobbied for), rather than penalising voters with a rise in general taxation, a move inconceivable after Labour has spent a year attacking the rising “cost-of-living”.
This was a speech that shamelessly played to the opposition’s strengths. The NHS, living standards, and the bedroom tax all loomed large, while the deficit, immigration and welfare barely received a look in (as the Tories have been quick to note). Many will lament this unbalanced approach, but with less than eight months until the general election, Miliband has concluded that his best hope of victory lies in firing up Labour’s base and retaining the Lib Dem refugees, rather than chasing after the unconverted.
Ahead of the election, he referred to himself as undergoing an “interview with the British people”. He was at his best when explaining why Cameron did not deserve to keep the job. “David Cameron doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom. He lies awake thinking of Ukip,” he observed in the best line of the speech. He derided Cameron for hugging huskies and then denouncing “the green crap”. The man who adopted a tree as his logo went on to try and sell off the forests, he quipped in another fine line.
But the awkward truth for Labour is that there was little in the speech to convince those not already inclined to vote for the party to do so. And after Miliband acknowledged his weaknesses in his speech in the summer, there was little to persuade the large number of voters who do not regard him as a future prime minister to take another look. Rather than sweeping to victory, carried aloft by the “progressive majority”, the growing sense is that the best Labour can hope for, as one shadow cabinet minister put it, is to “fall over the line”.