Tuesday 28 September 2010

A clever first speech, now for the hard part

Ed Miliband's first speech as party leader was clever and well-constructed, though it suffered from an as yet limited sense of what it all means in practice. Nevertheless, he met the tests set for him by the tabloids. He couldn't have been clearer about his support for fiscal responsibility and reducing the deficit, but he wrapped it in a great phrase about true patriotism being about reducing the debt burden for our kids, as well as about building an economy and a society fit for our kids to live in. He was clear what he supported from Labour's legacy, as well as starting to set a clearer sense of where he wants to go - graduate tax, tax breaks for a living wage, work-life balance, sensible welfare reform, civil liberties - but was sharp in reminding the unions of the 'book of historic failures' and that he would not support 'irresponsible strikes'.

His is a style where he lays the hard choices out clearly, but softens them to please his audience: backing being tough on crime, pro-business, changing clause 4 but finishing with all-women shortlists. He is also unclear where he stands on some of Labour's most important reforms: his tale of tackling a failing school should have been followed by support for Labour's successful academies. Instead it was used to talk up government. It was also fascinating how muted a response he received from the conference floor for his criticism of the Iraq war. (Note, by contrast, the stronger applause he got for his support for Palestine).

Where he is on strongest ground is on democratic reform - with a clear pledge to support the Alternative Vote and reform the Lords - and on the need for intelligent cross-party thinking (a promise to go soft on Ken Clarke and Theresa May must rule out Ed Balls for Shadow Home Secretary, then). But his speech lacked a clear sense of where Ed Miliband will take the party, though given how little time he had to prepare this speech, this is excusable this year. This was a well crafted first speech, confidently delivered, not least in his repudiation of the "Red Ed" label and his shaping of Labour as a party of optimism. He has passed this first test: the big challenge comes in translating all this into practice in a way that genuinely wins back many of the five million New Labour voters lost since 1997.

This post has been picked up by Left Foot Forward and Iain Dale.

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