Ed Miliband's conference speech must show Labour has a head as well as a heart

Leader must appeal to a broad coalition of voters, not just the party's core supporters and disillusioned Liberal Democrats

Click to follow
The Independent Online

How can Ed Miliband make his Labour conference speech on Tuesday an unqualified success? The Labour leader's biggest challenge isn't eliminating the image of Red Ed. It is getting noticed when the risk is being ignored.

Polls indicate Miliband is still not taken seriously as a prospective Prime Minister. And to win, he needs not just to rally Labour supporters but to build confidence in his party's prospectus among the non-committed 'swing' voters who determine British elections. The leader’s speech is hugely important with less than a year to the general election, offering an unrivalled opportunity to dominate the media agenda.

This year, Miliband will be poised to attack the Conservatives over cuts and inequality, positioning Labour as the compassionate party on the side of the dispossessed. But if Labour wants to help the most vulnerable then it has to be in government - that means appealing to a broad coalition of voters, not just its core supporters and disillusioned Liberal Democrats, demonstrating the party has a head as well as a heart – a willingness to take tough decisions in the national interest.

Miliband's predecessors always understood the potential impact of the conference speech. Blair’s team began work early, but inevitably in the days and hours running up to the speech there were endless re-writes, obsessively refining the key arguments. In contrast, Brown was always searching for the magic nugget of policy that would transform his political prospects. Pollsters insist such moments rarely make a lasting impression on voters. But both leaders understood the conference speech mattered, providing vital political ammunition for the battles ahead.

This year, Miliband’s speech has to meet seven tests.

First and foremost, it has to establish a baseline of economic credibility and competence - setting out with clarity Labour's plans on spending, the deficit, and debt - how new fiscal rules will guard against external shocks. There must be no massaging of the numbers, with oversight provided by a beefed up Office for Budgetary Responsibility. Miliband should be explicit that Labour won't repeat the errors of pre-2010 - not just inadequate regulation of the City but the failure to build a surplus, alongside over-complacency that 'boom and bust' had been conquered and that markets were now inherently benign.

Second, link the cost of living agenda to a coherent vision of the future economy showing where UK wealth will be generated 20 or 30 years from now - making it clear without sustained growth and wealth creation alongside rising productivity, Labour can neither improve wages and living standards nor generate a surplus to invest in public services. The UK economy of the next decade is going to be increasingly knowledge-based, rooted in innovation, high-tech, and powered by SMEs.

Third, show Labour is willing to face up honestly to long-term challenges facing Britain such as funding health and social care, launching a big debate about a hypothecated insurance fund for the NHS. People don't want to pay higher rates of income tax without specifying the purpose of public investment; there are efficiency gains to be generated in healthcare. But voters also want a world-class NHS: if extra tax is invested wisely, they are willing to pay.

Fourth, articulate a distinctive Labour vision to rally the faithful and win over the undecideds. Last month's Social Mobility Commission report exposing the dominance of ‘top jobs’ by a narrow elite paves the way for Labour to argue it can open up opportunity in Britain more effectively than the Tory party. Miliband should make an emblematic pledge: all state school pupils gaining 'ABB' grades or above at A-level should gain automatic entry to a Russell Group university.

Fifth, in foreign policy, Miliband and his team must pass the '3am test' in a world of unprecedented threats. They need to demonstrate the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan have been learned without resiling from the use of military force. The big challenge will be bringing the emerging powers into a multilateralist global order with an agreed strategy for security. Labour offers a uniquely internationalist vision. Its leader needs to spell out under what circumstances a Labour government would be willing to use force to defend our allies in the NATO alliance, and fulfil the United Nation’s 'responsibility to protect'.

Sixth, Miliband must ground the high level policy debate by setting out Labour's political strategy for 2015, uniting its traditional supporters with aspirational voters who want a government combining economic efficiency with social justice. That means taking bold, courageous, sometimes counter-intuitive positions: the best way for Labour to beat UKIP is to show that Nigel Farage's anti-Europeanism is integral to a right-wing market liberal agenda putting the NHS, pensions and social security under grave threat. Now is the time for Labour to define itself indefatigably as the true pro-European party in British politics.

Most of all, the Labour leader must use his speech to set the tone for the coming election campaign. He must show he wants to be the leader of a United Kingdom, healing the wounds of a fractious referendum. Miliband must demonstrate he can decisively address the ‘English question’ posed by the further transfer of competencies to Scotland. What happens at Westminster is frankly less important than radically devolving substantive economic and political power to English ‘city-regions’. The House of Lords should be reformed into an elected chamber of the regions, with its base in one of our great Northern cities. Miliband urgently needs to re-connect Labour with the burgeoning sense of English identity.   

In the run up to May 2015, voters want a conversation not a monologue: trust in government means being up front with citizens about the scale of the challenges ahead. For a few precious hours, Miliband's conference speech should dominate the national conversation. He must not squander that priceless opportunity to project his message to the British people.

Patrick Diamond is Lecturer in Public Policy at Queen Mary, University of London and former adviser to Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.