He's surprisingly good at big top eventsby Jonathan Derbyshire / September 24, 2013 / Leave a comment
Well, we already knew Ed Miliband is capable of delivering a compelling speech in a big hall without using notes—he’s done it before. He did it in 2011 with the “predators and producers” speech and again last year, when he appropriated the “One Nation” theme. He pulled the trick off again this afternoon, and in doing so ought to have put to rest any lingering misgivings about his rhetorical abilities. (And some of his off-the-cuff quips suggest he’s nimble enough to hold his own in the leaders’ debates in 2015, too.)
Like its predecessors, this speech had a freshly minted line running through it like a red thread: “Britain, we’re better than this” Miliband bellowed on more occasions than one cares to remember. I suppose it’s intended as a way of recalling the country to its best self, rather as American politicians will invoke the intentions of the Founding Fathers. (If that sounds fanciful, it’s worth bearing in mind that Miliband’s speech writer, the academic Marc Stears, is an expert in US politics.)
After a somewhat anecdotal opening section, delivered with the odd Blairish cadence and swallowed consonant (as well as a paean to his old mum), Miliband essayed a diagnosis of the sorry pass in which Britain finds itself (hence his belief that the country can do better). There was a tension here, which I don’t think the speech ever resolved, between Miliband’s analysis of the long-term decline in the share of GDP going to wages relative to profit (one sensed that at this point he was wrestling the wonkish urge to show us to a couple of slides with graphs plotting the wages squeeze) and his desire to blame it all on the Tories. “The cost of living crisis is not an accident of David Cameron’s economic policy,” he said not long after pointing to those long-term trends, “it is David Cameron’s economic policy.”
You’d think that a more coherent line of attack would be for Labour to charge the Conservatives with not having a credible programme for dealing with the squeeze on living standards, rather than simply blaming their opponents for developments that they themselves acknowledge have been baked into the British economy for more than two decades. In any event, in the second half of the speech, Miliband set about describing what Labour would do to change things.”It’s time to reset the market,” he said, offering in the process just about the most succinct summary of the notorious doctrine of “pre-distribution” that I’ve yet heard.
How would Labour do that in government? Here’s a list of some of the more notable policy commitments Miliband made.
* Labour will cut business rates for 1.5m small businesses.
* Companies bidding for government contracts will have to offer apprenticeships.
* With one eye on Britain’s dire housing shortage, Miliband said Labour will tell private developers: “Either use the land or lose the land.”
* Most eye-catchingly of all, a Labour government would freeze gas and electricity bills until 2017.
How will the Conservatives respond next week? Most sensible Tories accept that the 2015 general election will be fought on this terrain (living standards, falling wages and the rest). What they’ll make of the return of price controls to mainstream political debate is another question altogether. As one senior Miliband aide told the Huffington Post this afternoon: “The Tories don’t like price control, but it’ll be difficult for them not to like this price control.” In other words, The government won’t want to be seen as reflexively on the side of price-gouging utility companies rather than that of “hard-working families” struggling to pay the bills.
At the very least, Ed Miliband has given his opponents something to think about. And that is as good a measure of a successful conference speech as any.