Ed Miliband’s speech: 5 thoughts on what it means for Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the 2015 election

by Stephen Tall on September 25, 2013

Ed MilibandI listened to, rather than watched, Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. On the up-side that meant I missed the three hammy mid-speech standing ovations (shades of IDS c.2003); on the down-side it accentuated the peculiar whooping of some of the more excitable delegates (calm down, it’s just a politician talking). In its own terms — getting noticed for its content rather than simply as an impressive no-notes memory feat — it was an undoubted success. Matthew Parris in The Times rather brilliantly captures the flavour:

Crikey — it was wild, it was weird, it was manic, it was a blast! This was so much more than a speech. And so much less. Almost every one of what passed for policy proposals will surely fall apart within days — Life on Mars had come to politics as 1970’s-style wage freezes and a kind of national incomes policy danced before our amazed eyes — but as political theatre this was sensational. We witnessed less of a speech and more a kind of Labour rave. This was Miliband unchained. The star of the show prowled his white triangular platform like an uncaged bear, cracked jokes, jerked tears, tugged heartstrings, hurled abuse?.?.?. and the conference loved it. Yes sir (as he had shouted to an onlooker on Sunday), we really are bringing back socialism. They say conference-hall success usually precedes policy disaster. If so, Ed Miliband will soon be assailed by new criticisms. But one can now be consigned to history. He isn’t boring. Not after yesterday.

Five other thoughts struck me…

Only connect – can Ed in those live TV debates?

Ed Miliband is clearly well capable of connecting with a live audience. The conference hall was in thrall as demonstrated by the relaxed, indulgent laugh he earned for broaching the subject of Labour’s break with the trade unions. As Mark Pack pointed out when Nick Clegg received a similarly warm chuckle of sympathy at last week’s Lib Dem conference, “it’s the little things that give an insight into the real political mood”. Perhaps next year’s special conference, the crunch moment when the Labour leader will ask the movement he leads to relinquish the majority of its union-derived funding, will be a doddle after all. Of course, a pliant conference hall is one thing — can Ed connect with the tough crowd of viewers? TV news shows here rarely check audience appreciation through the real-time electronic ‘worm’, so who knows… But if I was a Tory strategist I wouldn’t be banking on Ed tanking in the televised leaders’ debate(s) after yesterday’s showing.

Can Labour change the terms of debate?

‘The Return of Red Ed’, scream this morning’s newspapers — or at least the Tory-leaning ones do, which is almost all of them minus the Mirror and Guardian. Team Ed are relaxed about that, indeed expected it. As Jonathan Freedland says in The Guardian, “He intends to talk over the heads of the Tory-supporting press, reaching viewers of Watchdog and readers of Which?” It may well work — though as the Lib Dems found in 2010, when the vicious post-Cleggmania onslaught from the press began, the drip-drip of newspaper attacks can take its toll. Their pen-knives will be out in force. Why? Because the 2015 election looks set to offer a clear choice. No longer is Labour led by someone seeking the triangulated centre-ground; Ed Miliband is offering a genuinely left-of-centre choice to the electorate. The Tories’ have assumed they can fight the next election by forcing Labour onto the defensive on immigration, welfare and schools (as well as the economy, obviously). Labour knows they can’t win on the economy, but by focusing instead on real wages, energy bills and housing — three issues reckoned to resonate more strongly — they believe they can neutralise the Tories’ attack.

Energy price freezes: there’s no such thing as a free lunch

How would Tony Blair have done it? He would, I suspect, have cut a deal with the energy companies: promise to freeze your prices for a couple of years and we’ll bung you some extra investment subsidies from the government’s capital pot. He’d have got a big cheer from consumers (who’d see their bills cut) without antagonising business (who wouldn’t pay for it). It’s no accident Ed deliberately chose a more confrontational path. The net saving to consumers is modest — an estimated £120 over 20 months — less than the Tories’ marriage tax allowance, far less than the Lib Dems’ raising of the income tax threshold. It’s a cash hand-out benefiting both rich and poor alike, something for which Labour has often attacked the Lib Dems’ tax-cuts. The difference with energy price-freezes, says Labour, is that these aren’t paid for by the taxpayer. But the reality is they will be, but more opaquely — through lower dividends for energy firm share-holders, including pension funds. “How many Ed Milibands does it take to change a light bulb?” “Why change it? All the lights have gone out.”

One man’s still smiling: Nick Clegg

One man will, I predict, be relaxed about this turn of events: Nick Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister is the only one of the three party leaders to have staked his strategic position in 2010 and never once deviated course: he will fight the next election by placing the Lib Dems squarely in the centre of British politics. (As I’ve argued before, he has (we have) little choice: it’s where the last election result left us.) “A stronger economy and a fairer society,” we’ll prate, by which we mean “Smarter than Labour, less horrid than the Tories”. The Lib Dems — moderate, fair-minded, sensible — will act as a bulwark against the tendencies of each of the other parties to lurch to the left or drift to the right. For a while it looked like Ed Miliband’s bland, say-nothing approach could muffle that message. Until yesterday.

Austerity? Bored now.

The framework of the 2015 election is taking shape. It’s Labour populism (energy freezes) vs Lib Dem populism (free lunches) vs Conservative populism (tbc). After 5 years of downturn/flatlining, the politicians reckon the electorate wants to see some gain for the pain as the economic recovery begins. In 2010, all the politicians invoked the language of austerity (“cuts bigger than Thatcher’s,” as Alistair Darling warned) — but none of them, us included, spelled out what that meant. In 2015, with the economy growing — along with the UK’s burgeoning debt burden — it seems all the politicians will once again engage in sleight-of-hand, happily pulling rabbits out of hats and awaiting the electorate’s round of applause. Even though the rabbits were paid for by the audience and the hats are on loan. Remember austerity? It’s just so last year.