Putting all your eggs in one basket is a risky strategy. Still, that’s what Labour plumped for in Ed Miliband’s conference speech.
To a certain extent, it was inevitable. His surprise announcement of the energy freeze two years ago proved such a successful attention-grabber that he evidently worked hard at delivering a barnstormer last year. Attention was always going to be focused on whether he could repeat the feat for a third year in a row.
But he also made it harder than it needed to be. By limiting Shadow Cabinet speeches to 700 words and forbidding any announcements, he hyped the expectation even further. There wouldn’t be much news from the rest of the Labour conference, so all eyes were on the Opposition leader to deliver.
Bluntly, he failed.
The delivery style – with the word “friends” barging in between each paragraph – was irritating.
The slogan, “Together” sounded better on the page than on the stage. Throw in his habit of misusing it – “This principle of together” – and it is already getting bogged down. Even an enthusiastic delegate found by the BBC, who hailed the speech as “democratic socialism at last”, said the theme was “togetherness”.
The implausible American habit of citing anecdotes in which members of the public recently said conveniently soundbite-worthy things to him, which all party leaders now use, was taken to new lows. We heard of Gareth, Elizabeth, Colin-who-has-since-died and various others, apparently none of whom said “Who are you?” at any point in their conversations with him. With little else to report, half the lobby are now chasing down these poor individuals, whose only mistake was to appear in a Miliband speech (the two who have confirmed so far reportedly have not yet been convinced to vote Labour).
The policy was patchy. As we already knew (since it was leaked yesterday), he wants a mansion tax and will give them money to the NHS. Even leaving aside the dispute over the rights and wrongs of the tax itself, this is yet another instance of Labour spending money multiple times. Last year the new tax on homes was going to fund a return to the 10p income tax rate – ironically, Miliband now promised it to the NHS, only minutes after condemning other politicians for breaking their promises. Immediately after the speech Andy Burnham delivered another blow, confessing he didn’t know how the new tax would work.
And where were the big, difficult issues? The deficit, welfare and immigration barely got a look-in. He coddled his party with safe Labour topics like the NHS, appealing to a bare minimum vote rather than sticking his neck out and trying to dispel the popular doubts about him and his team.
The audience – even the hand-picked faithfuls sitting behind him – were less than whelmed. Initially, half-hearted applause rippled out at the expected moments, but as the hour wore on, they started missing their cues. Miliband had to repeat a line about the NHS twice before they caught on, and at one point his declaration that “You’re on your own…” was clapped before he had the chance to say “…doesn’t work.” A good speech and a good speaker have a natural rhythm which carries the listener along – but this was more like being dragged behind a car, feeling every bump in the road.
There were some moments of genuine engagement, though. Attacks on the Conservatives for intervening to help bankers or accepting donations from Russians, on the Daily Mail for its criticism of Miliband’s father, and on Rupert Murdoch for being Rupert Murdoch, drew cheers. It was notable, though, that the most warm responses came only for his most negative passages. If Labour is “together” on one topic, it is who they hate – not, it seems, united in wild enthusiasm for Miliband’s actual proposals.
As highlights of a conference go, it was a pretty dim affair. Having seen the start of his party’s conference overshadowed in the press by the English Question to which he has no answer, he will have been banking on another triumphant set-piece to seize control of a third autumn running. He stood up, he said “friends”, he talked for an hour, and he left – but he left the political narrative wide open for others to grab.