Playing the family card cuts both ways in conference debut

Plenty of memories of parents' flight from Nazis but a lot less on recent family history
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In an era of personality-driven politics, new party leaders, particularly young ones, need to spend some time sketching out their family background, as well as indulge in such fripperies as attempting to tell jokes.

Ed Miliband began his speech yesterday on an emotional note, directed at the broader television audience of voters who don't know him. He spoke of how his mother and father, Ralph and Marion, separately fled Nazi persecution to seek sanctuary in Britain.

His parents' experience, he explained, inspired his "love" for Britain and ultimately led him and his older brother, David, to devote their lives to politics. "In 1940 my grandfather, with my Dad, climbed on to one of the last boats out of Belgium," he said.

"They had to make a heartbreaking decision – to leave behind my grandmother and my father's sister. They spent the war in hiding. Month after month, year upon year, they lived in fear of the knock at the door.

"At the same time, on the other side of Europe, my mother, aged five, had seen Hitler's army march into Poland. She spent the war on the run sheltering in a convent and then with a Catholic family that took her in.

"Two young people fled the darkness that had engulfed the Jews across Europe and in Britain they found the light of liberty. They arrived with nothing. This country gave them everything. It gave them life and the things that make life worth living: hope, friendship, opportunity and family."

There were, unsurprisingly, elements of Mr Miliband's family story – particular of recent – that he was less keen to dwell on, despite the interest they have aroused in parts of the media. There was no reference to his sister-in-law, Louise Shackelton, who is furious over David's defeat and is urging him to leave frontline politics. Her relations with Ed are inevitably awkward.

The recent trend in political box office speeches in Britain has been for the leader to laud his wife as his hero, or similar. Mr Miliband's partner, Justine Thornton, was in the hall to hear his first speech as party leader. She is pregnant with their second child and did not join him on the platform to share the applause, but he stepped into the audience after his speech to give her a big hug.

He did not mention her in his speech, however, or address the interest in certain quarters of the media in the fact that the couple are yet to marry. Nor did he make any wisecracks about the much-commented-upon absence of his name from their first son's birth certificate (his office explains that he was simply busy and forgot to complete it during the allotted time).

Watched by comedian Eddie Izzard in the front row, Mr Miliband tried a series of jokes, with mixed success. A quip that Jack Straw had been around when fire was invented – possibly a remark that was not appreciated by some of the old stagers in the audience – fell flat. Better received was the gag referring to the sibling rivalry, about how David had stolen his train set. The stand-up comic Natalie Haynes described his attempts as "structurally sound". However, "most of the punchlines were abysmal... He utilised a lot of standard comedic techniques, but the jokes were too long and sometimes you were left wondering what the punchline actually was". With a friendly crowd you can get away with quite a lot, though.

There was a final irony in the choice of "Use Somebody" by Kings of Leon to close proceedings. It was selected because of its inspiring lyrics, uplifting melodies and, most importantly, its inoffensive quality. Conference organisers must have forgotten that the Tennessee band is made up of three brothers and a cousin.


The party grandee

Former Cabinet minister, Margaret Beckett

"Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair will tell you what a nightmare it is addressing the conference as Labour leader. I'm sure inside he was strung up like a bow, but he looked like he had been doing it all his life, he seemed calm and confident. I've been reading about things he was supposedly going to run away from – Iraq, nuclear weapons, civil liberties. That didn't happen: he addressed them all."

The enemy

Deputy Conservative chairman, Michael Fallon

"Ed Miliband has flunked it. He will not be credible until he spells out which policies Labour would support, which he will oppose and how he will fund them. Labour's previous £44bn target was only a number. Six months on, and Ed Miliband has voted against each of our emergency measures. That's not responsible, it's irresponsible."

The David Miliband supporter

Shadow Scottish Secretary, Jim Murphy

"He nailed his colours to the mast on the deficit and ensured Labour would remain in the mainstream. He said he would not oppose every single cut the Coalition makes. He is a serious, deep politician – that came across when he said let's have a grown-up debate about politics in this country."

The union boss

Unison general secretary, Dave Prentis

"These first steps towards refreshing the party are a giant leap towards reconnecting with voters. Unison members backed Ed because they would stand up for working people – the majority of our country. He must now flesh out how he would do this."

The Blairite

Patrick Diamond, Policy Network think tank

"This was an authentic, rhetorically adept speech. The theme of the new generation taking on established institutions and ways of thinking – recapturing the restless, radical, reforming spirit of 1997 – was genuinely bold. Labour cannot any longer be haunted by the ghosts of the 1980s. Omissions were few, although a stronger accent on aspirational ideas like home ownership mustn't be forgotten."

The veteran of the Left

Tony Benn

"It was basically a very moral speech. He was talking about what was right and what was wrong. It will have resonance in the country, outside the conference hall. And he ended on a note of hope, which is so important because we are constantly being told that there is no hope, that all politicians are the same. That does have a destabilising effect on those who want to change things for the better."