Matthew Norman: Does it really matter what Ed said?


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The Independent Online

Three minutes and 45 seconds into Ed Miliband's speech yesterday, my mind wandered off to a fantasy world in which some mischievous sprite had spiked his larynx-lubricating Evian with a truth serum.

"Conference," intoned Little Ed in the escapist grotto of my mind, "you'll have read that this is the most important speech of my life. Cobblers. It couldn't matter less. Outside this hall and a few newsrooms, think-tanks and blogger's bedrooms, not a soul is listening to a word I say.

"I know you're fascinated because you, like me and the media, are political hypernerds who live in a cocoon of self-importance to protect us from any sense of our own irrelevance.

"Yet irrelevance is what defines any Leader of the Opposition so early in the life of a government the public has clearly decided to give a fair chance. That same public has also decided that it can no more picture me grinning triumphantly outside No 10 than Robert Mugabe, Tulisa or that late, great champion greyhound Mick The Miller.

"Look, though I say so myself, I had a brilliant summer. I killed on phone-hacking, and struck a nuanced tone on the riots. And what good did that do me? Bugger all. My defining summer moment was coming round from the septum surgery with the same nasal whine you hear today.

"I wish it were otherwise, but I still look and sound like I'm auditioning for the forthcoming ITV1 series Adrian Mole's Mid-Life Crisis, and that's something the electorate can't seem to get beyond. Less than a quarter see me as a potential PM, and plenty couldn't pick me out in an identity parade if the other seven were Peruvian mountain llamas. For Christ's sake, my own deputy Harriet Harman referred to me on Sunday as 'David'.

"Now, I could ignore all that reality, and lay a big line on you about the 'quiet crisis' in British families, but the 29 TV viewers would only snort to themselves about the not-so-quiet crisis in mine. I could reduce the complexities of business to Predators vs Producers, as if it were a tag team match in wrestling, and bang on about persecuting the jobless over social housing to introduce a reward ethos into welfare. Well, fair has nothing to do with anything. What's fair about my lot?

"I'm shackled to a shadow Chancellor who patronises me while overtly seeking my job either for himself or his ice-pixie missus, and the only saving grace about Ed Balls is that the punters really hate him where they are merely indifferent to me. The rest of my front bench, as Lord Prescott has graciously pointed out, is a bone-idle shadow government of none of the talents.

"Expediency forces me to pick a fight with the union leaders who put me here, the bastards, and God help me if the public sector strikes go ahead. Even as things stand, I no longer have even an obviously soft poll lead over the Tories. And to inherit this radioactive pile of pus, I broke my poor old mum's heart.

"Anyway, conference, here's the deal. I'm not quitting when no one, least all that crybaby David, could do this frankly impossible job any better. But I stay with this understanding. Unless the financial crisis becomes an apocalypse necessitating a government of national unity, my purpose remains the same as William Hague's after he inherited a loathed and discredited party in 1997. I am here to prevent a civil war, and ensure that Labour survives for the next leader but one or two, or even three, to take us back to power a decade or more from today. Thank you for listening, and please don't embarrass me or yourselves by getting up."

Back in the real world of the speech he did give ... but what the hell am I saying? The imaginary post-truth drug address transcribed above is the real world. The speech he actually gave was built upon the fantasy, colluded in by delegates and media in a mass collective act of madness, that anything Ed Miliband says could make an iota of difference to anything.

It was, for what it's worth, a perfectly adequate speech. It started well, with some mildly amusing gags. The delivery, despite the reliance on over-emphatic dramatic repetition that defines the unnatural orator, was fine. Yet when a power surge cut transmission at the very moment he said, "My message to the public is simple ...", the metaphor spoke for itself. The screen went blank, and literally no one outside the chamber was paying any attention to the core of his message.

When the broadcast resumed, he was wittering on harmlessly about his "New Bargain", albeit without offering any detail about how the world will be recalibrated to reward those with the right values. The "something for something" society isn't to my taste if that involves punishing the unemployed by relegating them down council house waiting lists in favour of those in work who can better afford commercial rents. But as irksome conference sloganising goes, "something for something" went well enough.

For all the triangulating between baddies rich and poor, he will never be the Bill Clinton of Hampstead. Empathy, passion and bedazzling rhetoric are not the forensic calling cards of the faintly weird policy wonk. Yet without locating the audience's G spot, he found enough of its most easily accessed erogenous buttons – a neat pastiche of Cameron's "we're all in this together"; "I am not Tony Blair"; love the NHS, hate Sir Fred Goodwin – to enflame them a little. His decency and intelligence were plain, and all in in all he didn't do badly.

But then by no means is the Younger Milibandroid a bad leader. He has performed so well in the year since delivering the last "most important speech of his life" (remember much of that career-changer? Me neither. Not a dickie bird) that it's hard to conceive how he might done better given the failure to resonate with the public, the personnel at his command, and the enduring toxicity of his brand.

The finely balanced electoral maths do not disguise the historic fact that detoxification takes an age for ruling parties routed at the polls. It took Labour 13 years to recover after 1951, and 17 years after 1979, the Tories a baker's dozen after 1997. None won under the first leader they elected in opposition, and while he will comfortably survive to fight an election, nothing Ed Miliband said yesterday offered a clue as to how he will buck that trend. But then nothing could have done that. No one was listening.