Ed Miliband’s leader’s speech: my first impressions

by Stephen Tall on September 28, 2010

Well, that’s one job done: the new Labour leader (but not the New Labour leader: absolutely not) has got through his first, major task: to deliver his speech to the party conference. It seemed to me to best understood as a ‘detoxifying’ speech. Just as David Cameron’s biggest achievement as Tory leader was to make it almost respectable to vote for his party, so was Ed Miliband attempting to cast off the most illiberal and unpopular aspects of the last Labour government (even though he was a member of its cabinet).

Perhaps inevitably this meant the focus of the speech was pretty blurry. On the one hand, there was a deeply personal and affecting tribute to his parents’ battle to flee the Nazis and make new lives for themselves in Britain; on the other hand, questioning the free movement of labour within the EU. On the one hand, he stressed the importance of cutting the deficit (slowly and gradually); on the other, he listed a range of uncosted aspirations, such as the living wage. On the one hand he consciously referenced those great Liberal reformers of yore, Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge; on the other hand, he continued the Labour leadership’s silly abbreviating of the Liberal Democrats to Liberals. (Not that I mind us being called Liberals; it’s the pettiness of the gesture which grates.) On the one hand he claimed the mantle of optimism; on the other he painted a doom-and-gloom picture of Britain in the next five years.

His delivery will doubtless improve with practise: there were a number of simple verbal slips, and he sometimes just looked too earnestly ‘preachy’. At times he looked stiff and awkward behind the podium.

The interesting question, though, is where he positions the Labour party in politics. Today’s speech seemed a conscious pitch for the liberal-left vote which the Lib Dems have sometimes successfully attracted, and which appears at risk in the new Coalition politics.

Yet the policies he praised — with the exception of cutting the deficit — were almost all already Coalition policy, mostly as a result of the Lib Dems being in government: electoral reform, an elected House of Lords, devolving power to local government, shorter prison sentences to reduce re-offending, a review of stop-and-search powers, welfare reform… all were name-checked in the speech, all are now happening only because Labour is no longer in government blocking them.

Not that I think there’s much mileage in attacking the new Labour leader simply because much of what he says contradicts what he was saying up until a few months ago. Yes, the freedom-loving Ed Miliband of today was the same Ed Miliband who voted for 90-days detention without trial, and ID cards, and control orders. Yes this Iraq war-opposing Ed Miliband was the same Ed Miliband who voted against an independent investigation into it. And yes, this was the same climate change-combating Ed Miliband who green-lighted the third runway at Heathrow and failed to vote for measures which would, for example, ensure climate change was considered as part of major planning applications. And yes, this was the same political reforming Ed Miliband who failed to vote in 2008 to open up MPs’ expenses to external audit. And yes, this was the same Ed Miliband who wrote the party’s 2010 general election manifesto but now appears to repudiate much of what it contained. But, still, we’re a party which believes in second chances, that welcomes the repenting sinner.

If Ed Miliband wants the Labour party now to compete on the same territory as the Lib Dems, liberals across the political spectrum will welcome this. Sure, it might make our campaigning tougher. But, believe me, after the last 13 years of a fundamentally illiberal government, one which trampled on individual liberty at home while mounting a catastrophic foreign policy, I will cheer if — and I stress if — there is now a Labour leader ready to back pluralist, liberal policies in the years ahead.