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 public sector. As much the party of the small business struggling against the odds as the home help struggling against 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 instead of drafted by his kitchen cabinet, was delivered with 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, he said: "My conviction is rooted in my family's story, a story that starts 1,000 miles from here, because the Milibands haven't sat under the same oak tree for the last 500 years… I know I would not be standing on this stage today without the compassion and tolerance of our great country, Great Britain." He added: "This is what I believe in. This is my faith… To come together, to join together, to work together as a country. It's not some impossible dream." Citing the nation's mood during the Olympics and Paralympics, he said: "We have heard it, we have seen it, we've felt it. That is my faith – one nation, a country with everyone playing their part, a Britain we rebuild together."
In a powerful attack on Mr Cameron, the Labour leader said: "You can't be a One Nation Prime Minister if you raise taxes on ordinary families and cut taxes for millionaires… if all you do is seek to divide the country between North and South, between public and private, between those who can work and those who can't work… If your Chief Whip insults police officers by calling them plebs."
Although the Conservatives believed they were "born to rule", Mr Miliband brought the Manchester conference to its feet by declaring: "Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower than this Prime Minister and this Government?"
He insisted "One Nation Labour" was not a way to avoid difficult decisions. Labour would not be able to reverse many of the Coalition's cuts; those who can work have a responsibility to take jobs and the retirement age would have to be raised. He gave three examples of his new approach.
One nation banking
Mr Miliband warned the banks that an incoming Labour Government would legislate to force them to split their investment and high street arms. "We need banks that serve our country, not a country that serves its banks," he said. "I've got a message for the banks: we can do this the easy way or the hard way."
One nation education
"It's time to put our focus on the forgotten 50 per cent who do not go to university," Mr Miliband said as he announced plans for a "gold standard vocational qualification", a "technical baccalaureate" for 18-year-olds.
One nation business model
Mr Miliband said a Labour Government would make life "a bit easier for the producers and that bit harder for the predators". He said companies should no longer have to update shareholders on a quarterly basis to encourage long-term thinking. He proposed tighter takeover rules to prevent hedge funds and speculators swooping in for a quick profit.