By Paul Goodman
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This article has not been approved by Ivan Lewis MP
Ed Miliband's standing with the voters was summed up by a passage of his speech. "My message to the public is simple," he cried – and, as he did so, the live BBC coverage I was watching died. The moment was apt. We know from this morning's ComRes poll, if we didn't know it already, that voters are baffled by the Labour leader, and see him as not merely weird but remote – a creature of the political class whose main achievement to date has been to knife his brother.
With its opening hymn to Liverpool Council, its closing one to the NHS, its distinction between predator businesses and producer businesses (how will Labour decide which is which?), its condemnation of the rich getting richer and the poorer getting poorer – which won a tumultuous cheer from the hall – and its penultimate attack on David Cameron, this will probably be written up as a speech from the heart, a Red Ed speech, the Real Ed speech.
This was clearly how it was meant to sound. In the absence of anything like detailed policy, the speech was decorated with personal declaration. Miliband will "take risks", "stand up for what is right", and "break the consensus". "I'm my own man," he cried (though men who are their own man don't usually need to say so). This was in the context of proclaiming that he isn't Tony Blair – the three-times election winner whose name provoked boos: echoes of Labour's '80s madness.
Which will be swooped on by the lobby. Which will feed into the Red Ed narrative. But probed more deeply, the speech revealed something more important. The artful reference to his old school (i.e: not Eton) and his children-before-marriage (stuff you, Paul Dacre!) were balanced by crafted pitches to special grievances: students facing higher tuition fees, people paying higher electricity bills, "grafters" – Miliband's words – brooding on banker bonuses and energy fatcats.
It was though the speech was being aimed at a focus group. That's not unusual: after all, most speeches by senior politicians sound like that. But it's worth clinging to the difference between the apparently heartfelt rhetoric and the deeply deliberate targeting, because it does to the heart of the matter. This wasn't a heartfelt speech. This was a deeply cynical speech – down to the detail of Bombardier, whose closure Miliband condemned, but which was planned under Labour.
It's as though his advisers had said to him before the conference. "Look, Ed, the voters don't get you. Your only chance of breaking through is to convince them you're real. So there's a happy coincidence of instinct and strategy here. Do you feel left-wing? Then be left-wing. It may not work. But it's the only chance you've got. Go for the squeezed middle, go for the students, go for the pensioners facing higher bills."
Tony Blair wasn't in the hall. Nor was Gordon Brown. (And nor, for that matter, was David Miliband.) But Miliband's greatest admirer among former Labour leaders was present: Neil Kinnock. Right at the start, the present leader alluded to the past one – and what was probably Kinnock's finest hour, his courageous Liverpool conference speech attack on Militant. But which tough target did Miliband bravely attack today? Fred Goodwin. That was about the measure of it.