What Miliband must learn from Cameron: a speech is not a policy paper

2 October 2011

I have been so annoyed by Ed Miliband’s speech to Labour Party conference that I
haven’t been able to bring myself to write about it.

As the Tories gather in Manchester I should really be turning my thoughts to things Conservative, but I can’t stop thinking about last Tuesday.

In Liverpool Labour loyalists kept telling me to read the whole thing again – and there is no doubt that this is a serious attempt to redefine the centre-ground of British politics. Polly Toynbee from the left and Peter Oborne agreed that this was an
important, near-epochal attack on vested interests.

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According to Toynbee, far from lurching to the Left, Miliband was speaking for the common man and woman: “Even after the crash Labour dared not speak a word of blame, but this leader was
ready to say what you hear outside any school gate, in any pub, on any doorstep. As he berated ‘fast-buck’ traders, something for nothing ‘predators’, ‘asset
strippers’, ‘vested interests’, ‘cosy cartels’, ‘rigged markets’ and ‘Britain’s closed circles’, here was the answer to what drives Ed Miliband

If anything, Oborne was even more admiring: “Miliband made an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate. He sought to reshape the terms of political argument
and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought. He has even made a tentative step towards tearing up the rules that have defined British economics for the
past generation with his cautious critique of capitalism as it has been carried on here for the past 30 years

They may both be correct in their analysis of the Labour leader’s words. But a political speech is not the same as a policy paper. A party leader’s conference speech is a set-piece
spectacular, a slice of showbiz. In opposition, it is the only part of the week’s events that is guaranteed to make the news bulletins. It must inspire and uplift the demoralised and

Ed Miliband’s 2011 speech, if it is remembered for anything at all, will go down in history as the moment the Labour party faithful booed their most successful leader. This happened because
Miliband fluffed his lines, pausing after evoking is predecessors rather than rattling through the namechecks. Miliband still has to learn that a political leader, like a stand-up comedian, needs
to make his audience feel safe in his hands – especially when the routine is a bit edgy.

No one who was there in the hall will forget David Cameron’s Blackpool conference speech in 2005, which effectively won him the Tory leadership. But I would challenge anyone to remember the
substance, which differed very little from the mainstream compassionate conservatism of David Davis. Tony Blair’s conference speeches were often fluffy confections, but they succeeded in
tickling the hall and appealing to viewers watching from home.

I understand this all feeds into the Toynbee-Oborne argument that Miliband’s speech had more substance than we are used to from our political leaders. Ultimately, this is what frustrates me
most. Miliband may well have a visionary alternative to the growth-free austerity policies of the government. But right now he is just shouting into the abyss.

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Show comments
  • rndtechnologies786

    Nice thought.

  • Erica Blair

    ‘…the moment the Labour party faithful booed their most successful leader.’

    They booed a liar, corporate whore and war criminal. Good for them.

  • Hugh

    Largely agree with Martin’s comment above, that this was largely platitudes, but you can also look at it this way: Ed was simply repeating his Murdoch schtick.

    He’s turned (very late in the day again) against a figure – this time bankers and asset strippers, last time Murdoch – with no popular support and whose support there was no prospect of him winning.

    The design is to boost his poll ratings, but as with Murdoch, it is widely hailed in sections of the media as a brave move changing the terms of the debate.

    In fact, it only confirms a lack of imagination. It’s essentially the same story as when his success in PMQs using a question on some obscure detail flummoxed Cameron and the trick was then repeated for the next couple of weeks – not because those details were of particular concern to Ed, but because the tactic seemed to work. It also confirms that – like Brown – he doesn’t actually have any idea what he would do with power were he to win it.

    If you doubt this ask whether it is likely that if, as Toynbee says, this is a genuine mission that drives Ed he would have kept it quiet for over a year? Does it seem likely anyone with even one genuinely revolutionary idea could be quite so successful in hiding it?

  • Ron Todd

    Every political speech should have at least one reference to fairness, promise to cut bureaucracy hype the potential of efficiency savings and make the claim that the leader, or leader in waiting is unlike the other lot interested in the wellbeing of ordinary hard working families.
    And everybody listing should know that red tape will get worse and none of them really care for ordinary white working class British families.

  • Martin

    “there is no doubt that this is a serious attempt to redefine the centre-ground of British politics. Polly Toynbee from the left and Peter Oborne agreed that this was an important, near-epochal attack on vested interests”

    I just don’t understand this. That Polly Toynbee and Peter Oborne are united in producing drivel does not demonstrate anything – except that eminent commentators can be paid to write piffle.

    I watched the whole of the speech. It didn’t strike me as remotely serious. It was vapid. The journalism it generated was equally vapid.

    There is nothing radical about attacking “asset strippers”, “predators”, “vested interests” and all the rest. It is *easy* to attack these things. No one is in favour of them.

    All Miliband did was say he’s in favour of good things and against bad things. He repeated the word “values” a lot. He told us he’s in favour of fairness and decency.

    And journalists declare that he has changed politics. He has ended three decades of free-market orthodoxy. But how has he done this? It means nothing unless you explain – at least in the most general terms – *how* you’re going to begin to do this.

    A man without charisma stands on a stage and says he loves his kids and that he believes in fairness. Journalists declare this an epoch-changing event.

    This is just a charade. A man makes a speech about nothing. Journalists write articles that say nothing.

  • TrevorsDen

    good businesses bad businesses? well we can all be opposed to the latter. So what?

    I do not detect any change is stance from what is currently mainstream.

  • Ron Todd

    Cameron or Miliband or Boris. Its only the thought that Cleggy boy is not on the list that is stopping me from sliting my wrists now.

  • Archibald

    What substance exactly? List me a couple of points you think are the biggies? And given that ‘something for something’ is basically classic Thatcher, unless you can spin it otherwise, you can’t have that. So let’s hear it.

  • David

    Journalists are so two-faced. They complain that modern politics is all spin and presentation and then moan like bored teenagers when they don’t get a bit of razzle-dazzle from a party leader’s speech.

    Like it or not, Miliband’s speech was the most substantial we have heard from a politician in a long time. Give me that over empty showmanship any time.

  • Archibald

    I have to disagree. It was full of contradictions and where there was any sort of actual policy mentioned it was to say they’d not change what the Tories were doing and a pledge to barely change tuition fees. These admissions in themselves already imply no radical policy changes. After he praised Thatcher, it left me wondering just what it was these people in the hall believed in now. Little wonder the ‘Red Flag’ was apparently not sung with any real conviction. And the theme of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ was juvenile drivel. Who doesn’t prefer good over bad in any walk of life, but there was and continues to be nothing turning this fairy tale idea into a reality, all you hear is it’s not about government setting hard rules as they try to back away from accusations of a swing to the left.

    ‘Something for something’ is also on very shifty ground for traditional Labour voters, that is classic Thatcher territory so why would anyone vote Labour for that line of thinking rather than Tory? From all the praise from unions and MPs who traditionally have to kiss up after such affairs and say what a visionary he was, this is the quote that stood out to me from a pensioner in the hall, a Labour supporter giving a view untouched by the modern day requirements to spin to the press:
    “He said he wanted Labour Party to be about work, but it’s not, it’s about workers. He said he believed in the ballot before strikes, but that’s wrong. And what he said about welfare was like listening to someone from the Daily Mail.”

    All in all it was an odd cocktail of classic Tory values and ideas along with lots of hints at intervention by the state that have since been spun as not going to be intervention really and nothing can be pinned down to even just one workable example. It was Ed’s ‘Big Society’ moment, but to be fair to Cameron there is actually something to the Big Society. Saying things like incentives to take on apprenticeships when the Tories are very keen on these already is just nonsense, these are all things being looked at, it felt as businesses clambered for clarification they were very much clutching at straws for examples of things that have been done before. Therefore, Martin or anyone else here who thought it had too much substance, please give me some examples to consider.

    What I wonder is, given the Labour stance on housing benefit reform recently, what is this now Ed is on the ‘something for something’ trail? Our Labour pensioner above thought he sounded like a Mail reader, I thought he sounded like Osborne during that housing benefit debate. How will Labour vote on other welfare reforms in this Parliament? You can’t joke about Clegg being a Tory then paraphrase Thatcher on benefits. You can’t joke about Clegg’s very poor action after promises on tuition fees and bask in all the solidarity during the student protests, and then say that actually by and large it’d be the same under you, but some of the dearer unis would have to cut their charges a bit. Substance? I think you’re all guilty of substance abuse, but I look forward to hearing your examples and being proved wrong.

  • paulg

    Well as we know I abuse you continously, and once again I think your wrong.

    You cant have a policy document when we are all just groping around, knowing something is wrong, but not quite knowing what it is. There is something wrong and he was trying to articulate it. It was a brave statement and if he said he had the answers after thinking about it.. we would know he was on LSD. It needs more than the insight than one man

  • Jebediah

    I look forward to Labour’s Ministry of Ethics and Morality. They can determine who and what are carrying out the “right” policies. I can’t imagine such a thing being used for persecution, repression of opponents or bias. No. The future’s bright. The left’s versions of utopia always have some sort of totalitarian entity hidden with them.

  • lou fosbury

    I thought it was the best political speech I have heard in a long time.
    Not least because it contained political ideas, no sound bites and a complete lack of misty eyed prophecies about bright new tomorrows.

  • I S

    Can you explain how Milliband’s Politburo will distinguish between ‘predator’ and ‘producer’ companies?

  • Mills

    Isn’t the problem a rather nastier one for poor old Ed. There are lots of different types of political speech, all of which are roughly acceptable to electorate and media alike. There was Blair with his lofty rhetoric, lots of abstract nouns, and a far-away look in his eyes. There was Brown who managed to inject passion into his lists of government spending increases. Cameron is much more down to earth, but appears to believe what he is saying. His speeches also contain a greater amount of more transparent structure and argument. His conference speech in 2009 was almost like an essay. In his day Kinnock was quite a good speaker, but much mocked by parts of the press that were always going to be unfriendly to him. Accordingly, his brand of oratory has become regarded as somewhat old-fashioned (likewise George Galloway, William Hague, and the pre-chucklesome Alec Salmond). But in the US, Obama has revived the art, and his best speeches are those in which he unashamedly uses poetic / biblical language, rather than those where he blathers on about hope and change.

    I am sure that Ed Milliband could easily have picked one such school in which to place himself. He could even have made his speech more like a lecture and I am sure it would have gone down ok, and would certainly have made his claim to be all about substance more believable. Instead, he has tried a style of speaking which clearly does not suit him, and so ended up looking like a prat, just as IDS did when he was turning up the volume, and as Hague did when he wore a baseball cap. The sad simple truth of it is that the public can spot fakery a mile off (or at least badly done fakery) and his speech reeked of it.

    In particular, he is especially ill-suited to making sanctimonious and platitudinous remarks (which were Blair’s specialism) as he can’t help but look smug and pleased with himself after doing so. I am sure that he would not look so odd after explaining his fourth reason for believing that there is greater need for demand-management in the economy, or similar. And even if he did, it would be a shallow person indeed who was bothered about that rather than what he was saying. Where what he is saying is vapid and boring, as it usually is, it is more difficult to blame people for noticing the superficial.

    Of course, the problem with all this is that it does require him actual to possess the ability to provide substantive content and analysis that he claims to have. And that very much remains to be seen.

  • and I’ll go to bed at noon

    So, let me get this straight: you’re saying the speech was TOO substantial? Conference speeches are widely seen as pure showbiz, and your response to this state of affairs is… to blindly accept it, to embrace the horserace and forget about ideas. Good grief. At least you’re honest about it.

    I think the really telling line is this:

    “…the moment the Labour party faithful booed their most successful leader.”

    Be honest, that’s what really bothered you, isn’t it? Labour are turning their backs (perhaps unwisely, perhaps not) on your brand of Blairite reformism, and you can’t stand it.

  • FvH

    Oh come on Martin what difference does it make?

    The Unions got him in. he is the wrong brother in the wrong place at the wrong time

    Cameron is an awful opportunist but his eloquence will mean he slimes in at the next GE as the least bad of the 3 stooges

    How depressing!!

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