Ed Miliband yesterday launched an audacious attempt to steal the Conservatives' mantle as a "One Nation" party as he raised the prospect of higher taxes for the rich if Labour wins power.
In what Labour hopes will prove a game-changing moment, Mr Miliband delivered a highly personal conference speech lasting more than an hour without using notes.
He exploited the opening created by George Osborne's decision to reduce the 50p top rate of tax to 45p by repeatedly attacking this "tax cut for millionaires". He said the "big difference" between him and the Government is he would ensure "those with the broadest shoulders will always bear the greatest burden".
Mr Miliband invoked Benjamin Disraeli, the Conservative Prime Minister whose 1872 warning against Britain becoming "two nations" became a guiding star for Tory moderates. Although echoing Tony Blair's tactic of stealing Tory clothes, Mr Miliband argued that his "One Nation Labour" would not mean a return to either New or Old Labour.
Declaring that "inequality matters", he said New Labour was "too silent" about the responsibility of those at the top and "too timid" about making the powerful accountable. But, in a veiled reference to the trade unions, he said: "There is no future as the party of one sectional interest of our country."
Mr Miliband said: "We can't go back to Old Labour. We must be the party of the private sector just as much as the party of the public sector. As much the party of the small business struggling against the odds as the home help struggling against the cuts."
Labour needed to be the party of the South as much as the North, of the "squeezed middle" as much as "those in poverty". He said: "In One Nation, responsibility goes all the way to the top, the richest in society have the biggest responsibility to show responsibility to the rest. In One Nation, no interest – from Rupert Murdoch to the banks – is too powerful to be held to account. So we must be a One Nation party to become a One Nation government to build a One Nation Britain."
The speech, written largely by Mr Miliband at his kitchen table, was delivered with a remarkable confidence. Surprised and delighted Labour critics admitted he had "raised his game". Some were disappointed at the lack of new policy. But Mr Miliband explained that he wanted to explain "who I am".
Drawing heavily on his background as the son of Jewish immigrants who fled the Nazis and his comprehensive school education, he said: "My conviction is rooted in my family's story, a story that starts 1,000 miles from here… I know I would not be standing on this stage today without the compassion and tolerance of our great country."
Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, said a Miliband government could target benefits such as the winter fuel allowance and free bus passes for pensioners. He said cuts to the welfare budget would have to be found because Labour would inherit a "dog's breakfast". But a senior Labour source disowned the comments.