Yesterday morning I asked if Ed Miliband needed to show some anger in his conference speech that afternoon. I wasn’t the only one wondering, and there was both real pressure on the Labour leader, and a strong sense of expectation surrounding him. The party has been polling well, but a poll result released in the morning raised serious questions about Ed as a leader.
So, of all the times to pull out a barnstorming speech, yesterday was a very good time.
For over an hour Ed spoke about his vision for the future of both the Labour Party and the country. He was relaxed, he was confident, he was funny, and he was clear about his direction. I’ve lost count of the number of people I’ve spoken to who are delighted that Ed has finally managed to come across in a public speech as eloquently, strongly and likably as he does in private.
In short, to quote an absurdly over-used cliche from the West Wing, he finally let Ed be Ed.
It was a long speech — made all the more impressive by the fact that he did it without notes or autocue — and he had the crowd responding to him naturally. Even down to the pantomime-esque call-and-response when he asked repeatedly whether the Tories could unite the country.
One of the early indicators of the speech’s success was the response of the right-wing press — even they couldn’t deny that Ed was pulling off an excellent piece of political performance.
At a Fabians panel in the evening even ConservativeHome editor — and human barometer for the Tory Party — Tim Montgomerie said that it had been a very good speech.
There was some discussion about whether Ed’s adoption of the traditionally conservative concept of One Nation constituted a move to the right, or a redefining of the political centre-ground. Certainly there was something reminiscent of Tony Blair about the way that Ed connected with such ease with the audience in the hall, and reached out to those who voted Tory in 2010.
(Of course, it’s worth noting that the perennially dissatisfied and embittered arch-Blairite Dan Hodges was still not happy, complaining that it didn’t contain enough policy. At the aforementioned Fabians panel, even Tim admitted that with two years before the next election it’s far too early to announce firm policy pledges. Constructive criticism is one thing, but criticism just for criticism’s sake? Can’t we leave that to the other side?)
Another notable aspect was the patriotism which coloured the whole speech through. From Ed’s account of his family history, to the Olympics and Paralympics success, there was a real sense of Ed taking on some of the traditional dominant grounds of the right.
It wasn’t the compete package. Ed won’t walk into Number 10 of the back of this speech. But it was a good platform, and sets the stage for him to make a real offer to the British people and a real challenge to the Tories. One of the best things about the speech was knowing that David Cameron was watching it, and tearing up his own conference speech — his doubtless-planned right-wing lurch would now fully vacate the political “sane” ground to Labour.
But I’ll finish with a direct quote from the speech (which you really should watch):
“Who can come up to the task of rebuilding Britain? Friends, it falls to us, it falls to us, the Labour Party. As it has fallen to previous generations of Labour Party pioneers to leave our country a better place than we found it. Never to shrug our shoulders at injustice and say that is the way the world is. To come together, to join together, to work together as a country.
“It’s not some impossible dream. We’ve heard it, we’ve seen it, we’ve felt it. That is my faith.
“One nation: a country for all, with everyone playing their part. A Britain we rebuild together.“