I was in the room, not far from the front and so that’s my point of reference. In all I heard Ed Miliband speak in person four times yesterday at different events and chatted to him at dinner. In the flesh Miliband oozes charisma and presence and is a good communicator.
The affection for him in the Labour Party ranks, among the Doncaster North CLP and his team of advisers, is striking. His warmth doesn’t come across on TV but yesterday was about content, around which the months of Labour’s campaign until May 2015 will hang.
Content is THE crucial thing to come out of yesterday. There is a different way of governing on the table. A vision. Specifics. Policies with winners and losers. Take your pick voters. There is a choice.
I go back to the core strategic assumption driving Miliband’s campaign to Number Ten – that Britain is ready for a Britain led by a Labour Party slightly more overtly left from that of years gone by.
This is the 2015 general election – not the triangulation of 1997. He yesterday had to put flesh on the bones to tell the conference what difference Labour could make to people’s lives. This task is so difficult. Labour’s pledges are modest in overall fiscal terms even if presented yesterday as very radical.
In style terms we saw a slowish start, self-deprecatory gags, anecdotes from normal people in normal life fed up with politicians, partisan Tory and Lib Dem bashing, key bits of the speech left out, key themes of save the NHS, stay in Europe, attacks on financial elites, support the self-employed, clampdown on tax avoidance, get Britain building.
And because of those specifics, in the hall – eventually – they loved it. At the end, he received a rapturous reception. The immediate post-speech buzz in the hall was very positive. Miliband’s speech was long (not for him the imposed word limits given to the rest of the shadow cabinet) but it had to be. There was a lot of ground to cover.
The message on Europe was startlingly uncompromising – and that spreads throughout the party – Labour MEPs I was with in the evening would rather those Labour MPs who support a referendum would keep quiet (it won’t happen). Under Labour a referendum is clearly not happening – if you want a referendum put your vote elsewhere is the clear message.
In the evening the usual Party Conference Gala Dinner took place, hosted by the charming Carrie Grant, winner of ‘The Voice’ Jermain Jackman (had the room on its feet) and featuring a huge gathering of Labour’s glitterati including Eddie Izzard, Fiona Phillips, Seb Dance MEP, Baroness Doreen Lawrence (lovely) and Labour’s campaigns director Spencer Livermore – some of the many I spoke to who were very upbeat about Miliband’s speech.
The lot of a party leader is not an easy one. At 11.40pm last night, Miliband was still touring the conference venue making speeches, dropping in and looked tired. His wife Justine is a cracking speaker and a huge asset.
As ever the bar in the Midland Hotel was a rich source of chat. There were plenty of doubters I spoke to who felt Miliband’s speech was weak and that he failed to come across as a statesman.
When Sky and the BBC interrupted the live feed of Miliband’s speech to show Obama’s speech on yesterday’s bombing strikes, people watching in the commercial area cheered as the speech had yet to reach its heights.
Many of those of course are not Labour voters – part of the commercial pack that follows all the conferences around. A journalist from Sky said to me: “Labour is sleepwalking into power – the leader is not a statesman yet the party remains firmly in the lead – Miliband is becoming a lucky politician.”
It’s true that in some ways Labour 2014 feels a bit flatter than one would expect and that many are resigned to not winning outright. But for Labour – even though nobody will admit this – even a Labour-led coalition would be an utter triumph for a party almost decimated in 2010.
The vast majority of activists, politicians, supporters across business and the unions feel that Miliband’s speech yesterday – a good one, but not one of his best – had enough vision and commitments, clearly costed without additional spending, to put Miliband into Number Ten.
So not his best, but good enough. I am now packing my bags for the Conservative Conference in Birmingham – fascinated to see what Cameron’s response will be and looking forward to the tightest general election since 1992.
Kevin Craig is PLMR Managing Director. He is a former Labour parliamentary Labour candidate and has served ten years a Lambeth councillor in Vauxhall CLP, re-elected in 2014
Dispatch from Labour Conference Day 2: A tale of two Eds