I am exactly the wrong person to correctly estimate the political impact of Ed Miliband’s speech today. This is for two reasons.
First, I’m a lifelong Labour supporter, so since this speech was aimed squarely at the public audience, whether I liked it or didn’t like is more or less an irrelevance. (I did like it, obv, if the Labour Okhrana are reading).
More importantly though, I’ve got a track record of getting these things badly wrong.
I remember turning to a colleague at the end of David Cameron’s “Look no script” conference speech and saying I thought it was useless. That he’d said nothing of significance. That he was just blather and hot air and rhetoric. Of course, I’d missed the point. Cameron had said nothing worth mentioning, but he’d said it so damn beautifully.
Today, I had to hold my nit-pickers desire for detail and substance in check. This wasn’t a speech about what Labour would actually do in government, or about the precise policy differences between us and the Tories on tax policy. It was, as advertised, a speech about who Ed Miliband is, and why he’s in politics.
I suspect for a lot of people who see him as that guy who occasionally pops up sounding adenoidal on the Ten o clock news, it might be revelatory. “This guy was damn good.” they might think. “Where did he come from?”
Or it might not, because they might only see a couple of soundbites, and the range of the speech might be lost.
Then again, it might, because he should get a superb write-up in the press for it.
See, I’m useless at rune reading!
So here’s my take, for what little it’s worth.
The delivery was really superb, really. This isn’t some light compliment – it was a big deal. The jokes were good, the passion real, the audience loving it. There was light and shade, modesty and anger. Just excellent, really.
The rhetorical device of One Nation Labour was extremely smart. Of course, it’s nothing new. Tony Blair was One Nation, and so was Gaitskell, and so on, and so on. Does that matter? No.
One Nation allowed Ed to take a conservative term and use it for his own devices. For Ed One nation isn’t quite what Disraeli meant, or what Blair meant. It’s what he has always meant. So, I don’t quite buy the idea this is a shift to the centre. It’s more an appropriation of the centre.
I thought the comprehensive school stuff worked less well, for the reasons I mentioned below. In the end, that didn’t matter, because the other “Human” sections – especially the part about his son, worked brilliantly well and were extremely effective.
Ultimately, the speech was, and deserved to be, a roaring success. It answered the who and why questions about Ed Miliband at a level above most politicians ever manage. His performance was beyond impressive.
As an instinctive Cassandra, can I spot any danger points?
The section on Tory tax affairs might open up the whole Ken Livingstone, Capital gains, Inheritance tax stuff. But maybe that doesn’t matter.
The very broadness of the One Nation rhetorical device meant it covered a multitude of issues, from public sector pay restraint to deficit reduction, to the need to heal our public services. The Tories might try to turn that back on us, pointing out that we may have changed the language, but not our attitude. Our fundamental analysis remains that the reason we let voters down was that we weren’t true enough to ourselves. The voters might see our past and presents differently.
By strange contrast, when you get to the policy detail, there’s sometimes a rub between the limited, even light touch, of the policy agenda and the implication of radicalism that goes alongside it. A practical example: The vocational education section, (which for my money was the most impressive part of the speech because it was a hard-edged set of promises) is about as non-partisan a concern as you can get, but it was pitched rather as a critique of the failures of economic liberalism. A few years back, educational subsidies direct to business would have been regarded as madly right-wing! Similarly, I don’t see a pledge to fully implement the Vickers review as being as radically left-wing as it managed to sound in the conference hall!
The other easy critique will be like mine of Cameron’s, that the speech was lightweight. Hopefully, the irony of a Cameron led Downing Street attacking an opposition leader for meaningless rhetoric may be too much for even Tory columnists to swallow, but I don’t hold out much hope. The coming assaults on deficits, on welfare, on fiscal tightness have been pushed to one side, not tackled directly, and though we heard a firm commitment to fiscal responsibility the consequences of this were quickly dealt with, not the defining issue I feel they really are.
Finally, There is still a great deal of policy detail to fill in – is our policy now that we will re-instate the 50p rate? I don’t think so, but it seems implied and I’m sure the left will take it as a firm promise. If we’re going to repeal the NHS bill, but keep GP commissioning, what exactly do we change? How do you introduce local accountability into Academies and Free Schools without stopping them being local academies and free schools?
So my natural pessimist feels the need to mutter a few warnings.
Yet I can’t help but think that such caveats miss the most important thing.
Ed Miliband wasn’t setting out to colour between the lines. Not yet.
Instead, he was trying to sell himself as a leader with a vision.
In that he succeeded triumphantly (as far as I can tell). Now, the task is to translate the one nation Jerusalem he sketched into a hard political reality.
Oh, one other thing.
I think the Labour party may have fallen in love with Ed Miliband today. That might change the terms of our internal polical debate a great deal.