Britain can do better than this. This was the central message in a speech that started slowly with campaign anecdotes from across Britain from a relaxed, well turned out and self-deprecating Ed Miliband. Visually, he followed the format he knows works – the ubiquitous dark suit, purple tie and not a hair out of place. This speech as it turns out was the best and most important that Ed has given in his political career. Standing ovations were given for commitments to protect the NHS and commitments on defining and protecting the essential character of a Miliband Labour government.
From a slightly underwhelming start, the hall really started to warm up at the mention of the well trailed commitment to reduce business rates for over a million small companies in place of more favourable treatment for larger firms. Commitments on breakfast and after school clubs to help working families, strengthening the national minimum wage and a million green jobs were all very well received, leading to huge cheers from the audience on tackling exploitation in the work place, a passing riposte to UKIP, and a passionate commitment that Britain will not indulge in a ‘race to the bottom’.
The atmosphere in the hall intensified further when Miliband turned his fire on the train companies, pay day lenders and utilities companies. His commitment on energy bills, which had not been extensively trailed in the media, sent a wave of electricity through the conference hall.
Then a leader under fire for a lack of specifics about what life would be like under Labour told private developers that they would have to use land banks or lose them. Clearly inspired by Andrew Adonis he committed a Labour Government to new towns and garden cities and a housing programme delivering 200,000 homes every year.
When he addressed party reform with a joke that was weak albeit understandably, the hall heard him in silence but it didn’t last long. He reignited the enthusiasm of the delegates with lavish praise for the NHS and a very specific targeted attack on David Cameron, and when defending Labour’s record on the NHS the hall again rose to its feet.
He then moved towards his conclusion by painting himself and Labour as on the side of many, versus a Prime Minister very much on the side of the few. David Cameron, he said, was aligned with tobacco companies and against cancer charities. David Cameron was for Murdoch and against the McCanns. Nor did Alex Salmond escape, and Miliband committed himself to fighting for a United Kingdom where the NHS operated without having to consider a person’s nationality, referencing the example of a Scottish woman whose life had been saved in an English hospital.
Perhaps most significantly in terms of the outside audience I noticed a very striking injection of optimism and hope.
Ed talked about Labour as the party of business, of job creation, of the race to the top. These are vital messages, as Labour cannot win from a position of negativity and any risk of only being perceived as the party of the poorest. The positioning of the Party as ‘the fairest’ is a radically more attractive electoral position. Having discussed in the past twenty four hours progressive capitalism with David Sainsbury, and the need for more lending for businesses with Chuka Umunna and Rachel Reeves, I was heartened at the very outward looking and inclusive approach that permeated all of what Miliband said.
It was also interesting to note that today we saw a Leader happy to confront head on what his opponents perceived to be his weakest attributes; namely leadership and character. Miliband is clearly unafraid of the debate to come. It is too early to say what impact, if any, today’s speech will have and I think one has to be very careful not to allow party political bias to influence judgements on a politician’s effectiveness. My hunch is that Conservative Party strategists, who know what the Ashcroft Polling data is telling them, will feel they have an unexpectedly robust Leader of the Opposition to defeat. Today’s speech, conspicuous by no mention of education and minimal reference to the Liberal Democrats, felt like the beginning of a long election campaign. Miliband is not there yet but he could do it.