Something remarkable happened to Labour leader Ed Milliband at the party’s conference in Manchester this week; people started to take him seriously. Following his big speech on Tuesday he looked less like the earnest captain of the sixth form debating society and, perhaps, a little more like a prime minister in waiting.
In the course of his speech Mr Milliband invoked the ‘spirit of the Olympics’ and sought to establish Labour as the real ‘one nation’ party. He poured scorn on David Cameron calling his government a ‘u-turning shower’, then added ‘When David Cameron says to you ‘lets just carry on as we are and wait for something to turn up’, don’t believe him. If the medicine isn’t working, change the medicine.’
The medicine in question being austerity and while Ed Milliband also suggested that the UK should ‘change the doctor too’, it is likely that whoever stands at the nation’s bedside the prescription will be much the same.
There was a huge policy shaped hole in the centre of the speech, one that Mr Milliband filled with a stirring call to arms against the ‘two nations’ Britain has become, ‘the bankers and the rest of the country.’ As in his 2011 conference speech the leader of the opposition is keen to weed out ‘predatory’ capitalism from the more helpful version, he’s just still rather vague as to how this might be done.
He also made a big play of his back-story as the son of Jewish refugees and his, relatively, modest origins, saying ‘I was born in my local NHS hospital where my two sons were born. And I went to my local school with people from all backgrounds.’ Through this experience the future leader of the opposition learnt ‘a lot more than just how to pass exams; it taught people how to get on with each other, whoever they are and wherever they were from.’
While Ed is certainly no old Etonian toff raised amidst the splendours of some Downton style country house he’s not exactly a horny handed son of toil either. His parents were both respected left wing intellectuals and though the school he went to was a comprehensive it was also located in a leafy suburb.
The policy element of the speech, such as it was, focussed largely on Labour’s plans to help the ‘forgotten fifty percent’ who don’t go to university by reforming vocational education, bringing in a single ‘gold standard’ exam and involving employers more in deciding what is taught on vocational courses. This is a much needed and long overdue reform of a vital part of the education system, how effective it might be after two more years, or longer, of Michael Gove’s peculiar meddling though remains to be seen. A lot of needless damage will have to be repaired before any good can be done.
As conference speeches go this was perhaps Ed Milliband’s best to date, the delivery was slick, he prowled the stage speaking ‘off the cuff’ rather than standing rigidly behind a lectern and even occasionally had in his eyes that gleam of messianic certainty Tony Blair used to have when he was really in the zone. He looked more like someone who, maybe, could be PM one day than he has before; but that maybe is so large he might not be able to scramble over it.
For a start the lack of discernable policies is a serious handicap, an incoming Labour government would be bound by strict fiscal restraints, meaning that it would have to talk in the ‘language of priorities’. Unfortunately without setting out a clear slate of policies voters will have no idea what those priorities are and so may opt to hold their noses and stick with what they know.
Then there is the whole issue of his attempt to lead his party in a charge to capture the centre ground. Pledging to govern for all of Britain is like saying he holds motherhood in high esteem and favours apple pie over all other dessert options, effective leadership requires taking a position somewhere other than in the middle of the road and then sticking to it.
Anyway a position on the ‘centre ground’ isn’t worth nearly so much as he and his aides think. Rather than being connected to the pulse of some mythical ‘middle England’ it really means being forever engaged in a flat footed chase after yesterday’s Daily Mail editorial. New Labour tried that and look where it got them.
This hasn’t been a bad week either for Labour or Ed Milliband. There were no embarrassing disputes and Ed’s position as party leader is safe for now. Last week I wrote that the image Nick Clegg’s speech gave me was one of the Deputy PM walking alone along the Brighton seafront at dusk, a forgotten and rather sad figure. This week I tried to summon up one of Ed Milliband standing on the doorstep of 10 Downing Street waving to the cheering crowds and grinning from ear to ear; but I just couldn’t do it, not yet anyway.