Speeches at party conferences normally do not have a long life, since they are designed for immediate effect. Ed Miliband’s speech was an exercise in showmanship and self-projection and as such was fairly successful. Whether it will linger in the memory is another matter. But it rallied the troops and partly disarmed the press – which is as much as he could hope for.
Miliband has two problems; himself and policy. Although his speech was intended especially to deal with the first there is, in fact, not much he can do about that. Opposition leaders are nearly always less popular than prime ministers; but it is not a great disadvantage. James Callaghan was more popular than Margaret Thatcher – by some margin – but it did not save him in 1979. Nor should Miliband try too hard to be ‘ordinary’. Many voters after all do not like politicians who are just like them. David Cameron is thus thought more ‘prime ministerial’ than Miliband even though nearly two-thirds of the electorate think he cannot be trusted to devise the right economic policies – or much else. Miliband is actually a rather attractive figure who at the moment has history on his side: coalition government is clearly not working at almost any level. He should not try to be what he is not. If anything, he should work on his geekishness which is likely in the long term to be more acceptable than Cameron’s ‘prime ministerial’ smoothness.
As to policy his speech was right to be detail-lite. Nobody knows what the situation will be in two and a half years and promises made now can later be real embarrassments. What a conference speech can do is to emphasise the spirit and direction of policy, which, on the whole, Miliband has done. He should not, however, regard ‘One Nation’ as other than a rhetorical ploy – as it was for the Tories, who never governed equitably in the interests of the whole nation. Who can? New Labour’s attempts to do so did not end happily. Sooner or later Miliband will have to be more open as to who exactly the ‘nation’ is. Are City gents as much members of the nation as those on welfare benefit? And are they to be treated as equitably as those on benefit? One would think that some City gents should reap what they have sown – but not many in parliament think that. Miliband has shown signs that he does see the problem, and he should follow his instincts. But all around him are the siren voices of the Blairites telling him that nothing can be done, and that no one should be alienated, except the unions and the poor. He should ignore them. If he thinks it is necessary to tell the union leaders in public that they are just one sectional interest then he should ensure that is not what he tells them in private.