I went to the seaside yesterday to listen to Ed Miliband explain why he should be Britain’s next Prime Minister. Lobby journalists often say of awkward politicians – the last two Labour leaders among them – “He’s funnier/friendlier/more natural when you meet him in person…” The problem is, party leaders can’t do the rounds to impart a little of this magic to 10 million voters in the flesh.
In Brighton yesterday, Miliband didn’t whip his Labour footsoldiers into a frenzy – there was no crowd surfing – but they gave him seven standing ovations – for sticking up for the NHS, immigration, and against Rupert Murdoch and the bedroom tax – and they left smiling, a spring in their step.
He began with self-mockery, acknowledging his geekiness (he remains a dweeb in leader’s clothing, a greater obstacle to power than ought justly to be the case) and spoke fleetingly of the hurt that his ruthlessness against brother David has caused their families.
His narrative was upbeat, aspirational, that life can get better. For most people in Britain, life under the Coalition has become “a race to the bottom”, he said, “and Britain cannot win that race”.
He was less accomplished at spelling out how Labour would transform this into a race to the top – the tax cuts for small businesses won’t hurt, but just saying “one million new green jobs” will not create them. On the million young people unemployed, his plan to compel firms to take on apprentices if they want a public contract or to hire non-EU skilled workers might make a dent. Meanwhile, the specifics of raising the minimum wage were left for another day.
As for his “land seizures” policy – telling developers squatting on land to “use it or lose it” because Britain needs millions of new homes, now – we await the small print. Mugabe Miliband!
The red meat in the speech was his announcement that gas and electricity prices will be frozen from May 2015 to the spring of 2017 if Labour wins power. The energy companies, accomplished pantomime villains, will use this as reason to refuse to invest in renewables and nuclear power.
If Labour are to wrest back power, Ed Miliband must win over much more sceptical audiences than the one he faced in Brighton. But yesterday was job done: the faithful pumped up for a year on the doorsteps.
P.S. By the time you read this we’ll know whether The Sun avoided the temptation to print a picture of Ed with his new mantra, “Britain can do better than this.”