Okay, let’s get the ugly bits out of the way. No doubt a weekend emergency appointment at the country’s top speech coaches has already been booked. A lot of work is needed on using the autocue, on cadence, rhythm and delivery. But it’s all fixable. For most folks…
All in all, this was a good speech and the speech he had to deliver. Today was all about establishing his credibility with the party. He stood before conference knowing more than half the people in the room probably did not vote for him to be their leader. Today was all about convincing them to get on board his train and let him take them on the journey back to power. So it was about putting the New Labour past behind them, about telling them who he was, where he comes from, what the journey they are embarking on will look like and what it might achieve.
He set out his credentials with a powerful opening about where his parents’ immigrant background. There was humour and self-deprecation. He put himself firmly on the activists’ side by thanking them for saving Labour from an even bigger drubbing at the UK election with all their hard work. He honoured New Labour’s achievements with a few surprising inclusions – equality for one. There were some woeful cliches and there were some meaty soundbites: “my values are my anchor….freedom and opportunity are precious gifts…. we do not have to leave the world as we found it”.
Three key themes emerged.
There is a new generation and this generation is now firmly in charge. He introduced the new generation at the start of his speech; by half way through it had already become this generation. A glide into the future, establishing ownership over his leadership from the outset. So, this generation will learn from the mistakes made by immediate predecessors. It will not forget where it came from and it will not shirk from the challenges ahead.
Miliband will not be indulging in opposition for opposition’s sake. Thus, an acknowledgement that cuts are required to reduce the deficit but not necessarily at this pace and of this size. On foreign policy too, he will work “bipartisan” to support ongoing action in Afghanistan and elsewhere on terror. And on welfare reform, he will look at the measures carefully and if they give people the chance to “transform their lives”, he will support them. He also announced he would be voting yes in the AV referendum, against all the signals presented by the Labour parliamentary group to date.
Community and family are the touchstone, epitomised by this statement: “we must shed old thinking and stand up for those who think there is more to life than the bottom line”. Again, he linked into his core values, and indeed, Labour values, but also began the task of challenging David Cameron’s Big Society. So there will be support for communities to take ownership of vital assets like schools, pubs and post offices. And he will espouse a better work/life balance for families. Just as he will fight for a living wage so that care workers no longer earn less in a year than bankers earn in a day.
Miliband’s speech was low key but it was personal, powerful and passionate. It was occasionally disjointed but he did have a lot of ground to cover. He had to pay tribute to the successes of the past, establish his values, announce a few policy intentions – the bit on immigration was very interesting – and still find time to effectively apologise for Iraq so he could do as the US has done and “draw a line” under it.
This speech had to establish his party cred; it had to win the doubters over. So running through this speech, no matter how hard he tried to disguise it with magenta pink in the background and a purple tie, was a red thread. Miliband produced a rhetoric not heard at conference – from a leader, at least – in a long time. And they loved it. We shall have to wait and see what, if any, of that thread will survive when he begins to engage with the wider voting public.