It started off pretty well. It even made him sound prime ministerial. Ed Miliband began by paying tribute to the captured British hostage from Salford, Alan Henning.
It was a mature and unexpected start to a conference speech, and one that should be praised.
It was also one of the rare occasions where there was some maturity on display during Miliband’s hour long (mercifully, shorter than the 80 minutes billed) speech. 25 minutes into it I was already beginning to despair. He’d gone into Ed the storyteller mode. Anecdote after anecdote, brief encounter after brief encounter. At times, it felt like Jackanory.
We got the usual mish-mash of ideas, the obligatory ode to the NHS, some Tory bashing and not much on the deficit. In fact none. It’s now transpired that Ed Miliband simply forgot this section in his speech. Which tells you all you need to know about Ed Miliband. Big on vision, big on restructuring the state, small on that rather crucial fundamental: how you’re going to pay for it all with a nasty financial black hole staring you in the face.
It’s not that many of Labour’s policies aren’t popular: mansion tax, energy price freeze, cap on payday lenders. It’s that under Miliband it’s always tried to run before it can walk. It’s spent four years getting ahead of itself, getting bogged down in too much policy and not getting the basics right. First, convince the public you can be trusted with the economy and go from there.
Miliband has consistently failed in this vital area, which explains why despite support for some of his ideas, this doesn’t translate into personal support. Voters like the policies but don’t trust the guy to be entrusted with putting them into practice.
After last year’s conference speech I wrote that Ed Miliband was staking all on his core vote. Earlier this year I also wrote that Tory bashing and academic waffle were the limits of his leadership. Nothing he said yesterday undermines either argument.
What got the biggest cheer of the hour? The NHS of course, and a pledge to repeal the Health and Social Care Act, although this has been Labour policy for a while now. And it’s a policy I’m behind.
I have deep concerns at the direction of the NHS under this government. I don’t mind a bit of private sector involvement if it helps speed up the time we wait for operations, for example. But too much private sector means efficiency savings, which means smaller ops that don’t bring in the big bucks postponed for the bigger ones.
The NHS is Labour’s raison d’être. It’s on safe ground saying nice things about our health service. This is what’s expected. This is what its delegates expect to hear. And therein lies Ed Miliband’s biggest weakness as leader.
The media have obsessed about his image problem. He’s joked about his image problem. He looks and sounds odd etc. But, this isn’t his biggest problem. And it never has been. His biggest problem is that time and again he fails to challenge his party’s activists. He gives them exactly what they want to hear.
It’d be inaccurate to say that he’s too afraid of taking on vested interests. He’s picked fights with some of the country’s biggest beasts. When it comes to his own supporters, he just can’t do it.
Anyone who’s ever attended a Labour meeting, be it at city or constituency level, will be able to testify that you are surrounded by people way to the left of voters on almost every issue. Anger at welfare reform, fury at any negativity (no matter how mild) about the NHS, is what gets these activists going. They don’t want to see reform. Of any sort. Most would increase benefits, not see them cut.
They are a terrible bellwether for public opinion. And yet they dominate Miliband’s thoughts whenever he comes out to deliver a major speech. How else to explain why Ed Balls does all the dirty work, putting a dampener of things, whilst Ed M’s job is to reassure and mollify?
Labour activists don’t want to hear about austerity. Miliband never used the word once yesterday. They don’t want to hear about cuts to public services. Not mentioned. Yet every serious observer knows that both will have to continue for another decade at least.
These are the things that wavering voters are looking out for. Is this leader of the opposition prepared to take tough and unpopular decisions, even if it means alienating allies? The soft Conservatives, not the diehards. The swing voters who want to sit back and be convinced. Ed Miliband doesn’t give them a second’s thought.
A potential future prime minister needs to show he can be a leader on the world stage. Ed Miliband’s support for UK airstrikes on ISIS could be described as lukewarm at best. Asking that it have UN authorisation screams delaying tactic or that he’s not really fully behind it. He must know full well Russia will never consent.
The lamest and quite frankly most cringeworthy part of his speech came when talking about Israel and Palestine. It’s so bad, so amateurish, that it needs to be quoted in full:
“I’m determined that as Prime Minister, I promote our values all round the world and one of the things that that means friends is seeking a solution to a problem that we know in our hearts is one of the biggest problems our world faces and that is issues in the Middle East and Israel and Palestine.
I tell you, I will fight with every fibre of my being to get the two state solution, two states for two people, Israel and a Palestinian state living side by side, that will be a very, very important task of the next Labour government, friends.”
It’s the kind of thing you’d expect to hear at a school sixth form debate. By two of the school’s low achievers. What does it mean? It’s so anodyne as to be laughable. It says precisely nothing, and bear in mind that this comes off the back of another brutal and bloody conflict there, is some achievement. Really, Ed, if you’ve got nothing worthwhile to say, don’t say anything.
If there’s one thing that this speech should do is sound the death knell for “I met a man/woman called Bob/Alfie/Rosy/Gill” type anecdotes. Done to show that leaders meet real people, they’re now so overused as to sound almost absurd, and rather comical.
And the poor sods in the story are then usually tracked down by the tabloids within minutes where they reveal that 1. X leader was a bit odd, and 2. That they don’t vote for their party anyway. Guess what? They don’t vote for anyone. They’re all the same aren’t they?
Enough. It’s desperation politics. It’s trying too hard.
So there we have it. The big make or break speech for Ed Miliband was neither make nor break. Nothing he said yesterday would have convinced the undecideds to vote for him, or those hostile to him to have changed their minds, or Labour voters to not be Labour voters come what (next) May.
After four years as Labour leader, it’s as you were for the party. Neither in the doldrums or on the brink of power, but with its core still intact.
And you know what, I think they quite like it that way. Nothing too challenging, nothing too uncomfortable. So, how does another five years in opposition suit you?
This was first published on Speaker's Chair on Wednesday 24th September 2014