By Matthew Barrett
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Ed Miliband finished delivering his big conference speech a short while ago. It was nicely delivered (impressively, Miliband spoke for more than an hour without notes), felt strong and purposeful, and had a positive message of solidarity: “One Nation”. Indeed, Miliband said “One Nation” countless times, determined to drill home the message and audaciously take the label away from the Conservatives.
It would be an intensely “personal” speech, the media were told before it was delivered. It did indeed touch upon his background: being the son of Jewish refugees, and, striking an obvious class contrast with the Prime Minister, having a comprehensive school education.
Miliband used the warm welcome his parents received upon coming to Britain, and events like this summer’s Olympics, to talk about a “dedication to a common cause” that all Britons felt. He said the same feeling inspired Britain’s resistance against Germany in the second world war, and helped “rebuild” the country under Mr Attlee’s government.
But there ended the nice Mr Miliband. He criticised, fairly enough, the Tories’ inability to reduce Britain’s levels of borrowing, despite borrowing supposedly being the biggest risk to Britain’s economic health. He tacked to the centre to say he could see why people gave Mr Cameron the benefit of the doubt – but Mr Cameron had been given two years, and had failed, Mr Miliband said. He then deliberately confused wealth and income to claim this Government’s cut in the top of rate of tax would personally benefit Mr Cameron to the tune of £40,000. Big applause. He attacked Andrew Mitchell’s comments (or not-comments) about police officers. Big applause. He summed up the Government by asking: “Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, u-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?”. Big applause.
At last, Miliband touched upon some substantive issues. He said the fiscal situation meant Labour wouldn’t be able to reverse many of the Government’s public spending cuts. Many “tough settlements” would have to be reached, and an ageing population meant the retirement age would have to be considered – but there was no indication of what Mr Miliband would actually do. He wanted Labour to be the party of the south as much as of the north – but again there was no indication of what Mr Miliband would actually do.
He returned to his comfort zone by telling the banks to divide their high street operations from their “casino” operations: reform yourselves by the election, or we’ll reform you “once and for all”, Mr Miliband said. He wanted to make banks “serve the country”, and not have “a country that serves the banks”. He said he wanted to come down hard on predator companies and foreign takeovers of British companies.
He said immigration in general was positive and had “huge” benefits, but not if it undercuts the wages of native workers. The last Labour government didn’t sufficiently address these concerns, he said, but, with no explanation offered, he also claimed “the Tories never will” either. He attacked the Scottish nationalists and the threat of Scottish independence, the success of which would lose him tens of MPs. (One might be tempted to point out that the very un-“One Nation” approach the last Labour government took to devolution empowered the nationalists in the first place).
His final rally was another comfort zone issue: the NHS. Mr Miliband said David Cameron had broken…
“…his solemn contract with the British people, a contract that can never be repaired. Let me tell me what I hate about this reorganisation, I hate the waste, I hate the waste of billions of pounds at the time when the NHS has its most difficult settlement for a generation. I hate the fact there are 5,500 fewer nurses than when David Cameron came to power. The whole way they designed this NHS reorganisation was based on the model of competition there was in the privatised utility industry. What does this tell you about these Tories? They don’t understand the values of the NHS. The NHS isn’t like the gas or water industries, the NHS is the pride of Britain.”
Overall, Mr Miliband’s was a speech that will delight his supporters, and perhaps end talk of a leadership challenge. It will have appealed to some voters on the left and centre-left, and made him appear a serious politician to a another chunk of voters in the centre – and the media. However, it was probably not a “game-changer”. Labour is already trusted on issues like the NHS, and few will have been in any doubt as to which party uses taxing the rich as its first port of call (another rather Two Nation policy). It did not reach out to swing voters and suggest Labour is a serious party willing to take tough economic decisions. He continued to be scarce on details of what Labour would do in office. It was severely lacking in substance.