Party leaders’ speeches should be judged both spatially and temporally. The general rule is that the further away one is in distance and time from the conference hall, the less impact they will have—for better or for worse. At the Labour party conference in Manchester, Ed Miliband undoubtedly enjoyed a triumph among Labour delegates and supporters, and even won grudging respect for his oratorical skills from normal critics. The one nation positioning was adept and, like early Tony Blair, irritating to Tories, while the one new policy announcement—the technical baccalaureate for 18-year-olds who aren’t doing A-levels—does address a real social and educational problem.
But I wonder how the speech will play in the Dog and Duck and how it will look in a month or a year’s time. Or whether anyone outside the political and media worlds will even notice, care or remember. Labour’s poll ratings and, indeed, the strongest applause lines during yesterday’s speech are less about Miliband and his party than mistrust and dislike of David Cameron and the coalition government.
Apart from some tough rhetoric from Ed Balls and Rachel Reeves, we still have little sense of what a 2015 Labour government would be like, apart from not being the Tories. There is a paradox: if everything is—and remains—as bad as Labour politicians say, then the more demanding the challenges will be in 2015.
The Blair style of confronting one’s party is now unfashionable; it was anyway fairly muted in his early years. But merely ignoring the fantasies and wishful thinking of the trade union leaders is not enough. Ed Miliband has explained his values but not how he would confront the dire fiscal choices ahead. We saw in Manchester a party and a leader who are comfortable with each other. That is an important step—but only a step—towards 10 Downing Street.
Peter Riddell is Director of the Institute for Government and writing in his personal capacity