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Did Ed Miliband's speech really matter?

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Robin Lustig | 09:27 UK time, Friday, 30 September 2011

I know you'll have been glued to your TV to watch Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour party conference in Liverpool this week. Ah, you weren't?

Well, you'll have followed every word of Nick Clegg's in Birmingham last week, won't you? Oh, you didn't.

David Cameron, in Manchester next week? Maybe you'll have better things to do. Maybe speeches to party conferences don't matter any more.

Or, there again, maybe they do.

Six years ago, after the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, just as the Tories were about to choose their new leader, I wrote: "A less-than-fiery speech from one Tory leadership contender - and an absolute humdinger of a speech from another one - has changed everything in the leadership stakes."

The humdinger, you may remember (no notes, striding across the stage as if he owned it), was delivered by a chap called David Cameron. Mind you, I can't remember a word of what he said ... but what lives on is the memory of how he said it.

And if we peer back further into political history, how about these?

Nye Bevan, 1957: voting for unilateral nuclear disarmament "would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber".

Hugh Gaitskell, 1960, after losing a vote on the same issue, pledging to "fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love".

Harold Wilson, 1963: talking of the need for "far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society" in order to create a "Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution ..."

Margaret Thatcher, 1980: "You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning."

David Steel, 1981: "Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government."

Neil Kinnock, 1985: attacking the Militant Tendency in Liverpool - "the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers."

Tony Blair, 1996: "Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education."

Iain Duncan Smith, 2002: "Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man."

Iain Duncan Smith, 2003: "The quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume." (A month later, he was gone.)

I could go on, but I suspect you'd rather I didn't. The point is simply this: every one of those quotes comes from a speech by a party leader to a party conference (with the exception, of course, of Nye Bevan -- he was never party leader), and every one of them - sometimes for better, sometimes for worse - helped to define who they were, and what they were about.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. According to The Economist, what he delivered on Tuesday was "a strange speech, a defensive speech, a timid speech, a speech that hinted - just for a moment - at all sorts of ambitious and radical ideas, only to turn tail and run away to the comfort of empty, unthreatening phrase-making until it said very little that ordinary voters are likely to notice at all."

Or, if you prefer, it was, according to Peter Oborne in today's Daily Telegraph, "an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate" in which Mr Miliband "sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought."

You pays your money and you takes your choice. What I don't think you can do is argue that none of it matters. For good or ill, this week's speech will almost certainly help define Mr Miliband's place in national political life.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

     




     

  • Comment number 2.

    Ed Miliband, one year into his leadership of Britain’s opposition Labour Party, has his work cut out to dispel doubts about his ability to propel Labour back to power.
    Voted out after 13 years in office, Labour will be looking to Miliband to set out their alternative vision to repair Britain’s economic & social problems.
    After a year as leader, I don't feel that I know Ed Miliband, or more importantly where he stands.
    Tony Blair & Gordon Brown still loom large over British politics. Miliband limbs along in their shadow. Ed has not managed to get into the spot-light. Poll: 57% of British adults have no idea what Ed stands for (ComRes Poll, last week). His slightly awkward presence & nasal diction don't help the situation.
    This conference was his first chance to establish his public credentials. While Britain’s governing Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition struggles to coax the economy into life, Labour under Miliband has yet to establish a clear alternative policy, though I feel he might have done himself proud to support & content for the Financial Transaction Tax, which would certainly help the financially-strapped taxpayer.
    He said the “big theme” in Liverpool will be the need to “rip up the rule book” & take on “a political consensus that needs to be challenged and changed”. Excuse me, but what does this mean? His clarification in the New Statesman Magazine offered no help: “the squeezed middle, what’s happened to young people, responsibility at the top and bottom” were part of “an economic and political settlement of some decades” that had to be rewritten. Excuse me again, but what does this mean?
    Despite some underwhelming performances in parliament, Miliband did manage to strike a blow in July with a strong intervention on the newspaper phone hacking scandal, forcing PM Cameron into launching a judge-led inquiry. However, he did not maintain the momentum during the riots which rocked England in August.
    Another Poll (The Times) 2/3s of voters, including 49% of Labour voters, said they found it difficult to imagine him as prime minister.
    Despite receiving the crucial support of the unions last year, he managed to annoy them this month by telling their annual congress that their planned strikes were premature. Furthermore, in Liverpool he proposed changing the rules for electing leaders — a move which will largely water down the unions’ influence.

  • Comment number 3.

    At the Labour Party Conference, Ed Miliband divided the UK’s companies into “producers” like Rolls-Royce & “predators” such as RBS and suggested the latter should be punished by the country’s tax system.
    This statement seemed perfectly timed for José Manuel Barroso's (President of the European Commission) proposal that financial transactions in the eurozone be taxed, arguing that, since the public sector had contributed more than €4,000bn in guarantees to the banking sector to support it through the crisis, it was now time for the industry to repay its debt.
    Therefore, I was disappointed that Ed Milliband did not follow-up his argument with support for an FTT. This one topic would have made his speech meaningful as well as opening a meaningful debate over the issue.
    For those who say that financial companies would move away, I say so what. Do we really want to retain huge investment banks whose products offer little to the general welfare of society, whose products are often non-transparent if not questionable?
    I say let them go.

  • Comment number 4.

    All party conferences are the same - they are the voice of the establishment telling us what to think, and what our agenda is to be.

    They are, and have always been, all wrong of course. They are not us, yet they tell us that they are!

    The disjoint between the reality of the mass of people's lives and the perception of this by the establishment grows and shrinks over time. Generally when times are good and there is food to eat, a roof to live under and jobs to do we don't much care about what the establishment says.

    However, today at the start of a Long Depression, like that of the 1870s the stresses in the establishment will grow, possibly to breaking point - then we will get at minimum a new SDP or, more likely, something much more damaging for the establishment. This reality is dawning on the establishment, yet that are powerless to stop this happening; they are powerless to be able to protect their power!

    The more autocratic the establishment the more likely that the change to a new order will be traumatic - as can be seen everywhere in history - let us all fervently hope that the establishment re-connects with the people and stops tilting at irrelevant windmills, but I very much fear that this may not happen.

    The reason for my fear is that the economic difficulties of the present Long Depression where multi-generational poverty is forced on the people will be so destructive to the nature of society that a revolutionary ethos may be the winning philosophy. In the end revolution is all about economics and our whole economic philosophy is broken far more seriously today than it was in the 1930s because the debt has yet to be deflated and until that happens there cannot be a recovery in jobs - which in the end is all that matters.

    It is not all bread and circuses - there is an underlying reality that is inescapable - no matter how well the media is controlled and managed.

  • Comment number 5.

    Maybe he is not enthusiastic about working for the bankers. The current leadership has no clue as to what to do beyond saving the wealth of the wealthy. None of them have a plan that will benefit the middle class and spur the economy. When you are on the wrong road it matters little what turn you make.

  • Comment number 6.

    ghostofsichuan

    --- How does it feel to have been ahead of history ?

    -- The ´Occupy Wall Street´ -- is on its way ?

 

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