Ed Miliband gave a damned good speech today, and he needed to. After his brother’s excellent speech yesterday, many who had voted for Ed Miliband were probably wondering if they had made the right decision. This speech would have assured those who did vote Ed that they hadn’t necessarily backed the wrong horse. I’m not sure whether it would have convinced many ultra-Blairites of Ed Miliband’s merits, though there is very little Ed Miliband can do to appease the likes of John Rentoul and Oliver Kamm, short of advocating the bombing of Iran.
The speech tackled all the touchy subjects that he needed to address - his brother, Trade Unions, the “Red Ed” label, the deficit – and did so very well. It was really pleasing to hear a Labour leader talking about inequality (“What does it say about the values of our society, what have we become, that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year?”), saying that Labour had to become the party of civil liberties, and hear him support AV and an elected House of Lords.
The Tories will complain there’s little of substance in his speech on the deficit - no specific cuts were talked about - but this was a leader’s speech, not a budget report. His position is a reasonable, realistic compromise – Labour won’t oppose all cuts, cuts would still have to be made under a Labour government, but the coalition’s position on the cuts is silly:
You (Cameron) were the optimist once but now all you offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what we can achieve. And you hide behind the deficit to justify it.
A very good line, playing on Cameron’s “You were the Future once” quip to Blair. Hopefully we will see some substance soon, but this was good mood music for now.
Here comes the “but”
One of Ed Miliband’s team when talking to the Observer described him as “pragmatic”. I’d be nastier than that, and call him an opportunist. This is most apparent in his positioning on civil liberties: he voted FOR the introduction of 90 days without trial, which he used as the ultimate example of New Labour’s failings on civil liberties. Perhaps Ed Miliband only cares about personal ambition? He voted for 90 days without trial to ensure he could remain a loyal Labour MP and get into the Cabinet, and then rubbished it so that he could become Labour leader at the expense of his elder brother. That is an exceptionally cynical view of what he has done, but I am an exceptionally cynical person.
He also isn’t a natural communicator. The speech started poorly. Ed entered the room to an abominable indie song (I’m not sure which one, because I’m not that cool) and opened with an appalling joke of how David Miliband had “nationalised his train set” when they were kids. Ed’s speech got better and better after a stuttering start, and the potential is there to be a decent orator, but he can’t do jokes. He has the comic timing of a man falling into a well.
Can anyone honestly see him impressing in the TV debates? He seemed to preempt that in his speech by criticising X-Factor politics. The main problem with Ed Miliband’s style when he speaks to an audience is that it comes across as being far too formulaic. There were far too many examples of “I’ve met a normal person, lol!!!” in his speech, which was reminiscent of the first leaders’ debate. Maybe Ed has been playing around with the David Cameron random anecdote generator? Also, whenever he was asked a question by a “normal person, lol!!!” in hustings, he asked for their name before replying, which again feels formulaic. Just because it worked for Nick Clegg in the debates doesn’t necessarily mean it works every time.
Whatever substance there was in Ed’s speech will doubtless be overshadowed by David Miliband’s gaffe:
Despite describing Ed’s speech as “very strong” and “nerveless” after leaving the conference hall, ITV News claimed to have caught him on tape making a barbed comment to Harman, the deputy Labour leader, while his younger brother was still speaking on the stage.
David Miliband, who has stood by the Blair government’s decision to go to war against Iraq, looked tense and showed his displeasure as Harman applauded a key section of his younger brother’s speech in which he urged the party to follow America in drawing a line on Iraq.
With his own hands kept firmly apart, he turned to Harman and told her: “You voted for it. Why are you clapping?”
Now this really is a gaffe, as Michael Kinsey defined it (“A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth”). David Miliband does have a bit of a point here, but has expressed it in an extremely tactless and unhelpful way. I can’t see him being in the shadow cabinet now. Defeat in the leadership election obviously hurts, and a break from front bench politics would seem to be the best way forward now, both for him and Labour.