The first and most admiring thing to be said of Ed Miliband’s speech is that he bothered making it at all. Me, I’d have played hooky on the compellingly nihilistic ground that nothing to be said could matter less, and passed a diverting hour on the pier in the company of Cracky Crab.
Twelve months ago, after all, when last he delivered one of his perennial “make-or-break” addresses, Mr Miliband gave what was universally heralded as the speech of his life. For various reasons (almost no one beyond the hall was listening; those few who were had not a clue what “One Nation Labour” might mean), it did him not an iota of good.
Regardless of that forensic tour de force, he arrived in Brighton with media and public interest virtually monopolised by a former spin doctor’s memoir, and with his own image set in granite as the nebbish’s nebbish. A thoroughly bloody nice bloke, yes, but too feeble and presentationally gauche to pass that “Can you picture this guy waving outside No 10?” test. Always the bridesmaid, in other words, if never a McBride.
As it happens, I disagree profoundly with this analysis. Clever, brave, thoughtful, battle-hardened and blessed with an amazingly equable temperament under fire, any weakness as a party manager – though what a bleeding party to have to manage – is much more than balanced by his strengths. But even if the bookies are right in giving him a favourite’s chance of waving in Downing Street less than 20 months from today, that will have infinitely less to do with his talents than whether Nigel Farage can rein-in the provisional imbecile wing of Ukip and hand Labour a couple of dozen of otherwise Tory marginals. The election result will have so little connection with what he said yesterday that it would be needlessly poignant to dwell on how he has spent the last few months relentless polishing the speech.
Those untold hours would have been better spent with the box set of Breaking Bad, partly for the show’s genius, but also for the cheery reminder that a brutal terminal diagnosis can be mistaken. Mr Miliband has been given not much more than 18 months by most pundits, but so was the lung cancer sufferer Walter White in the first episode, and he was still alive at the end of series five.
There, alas, the Breaking Bad analogy must end. Tempting as it is to imagine Mr Miliband fixing the forthcoming shortfall in trade union subs by manufacturing crystal meth, that would be a stride too far on his new path of lionising small business in the cause of Socialism Lite. In the real world, he must continue affecting the belief that he can control his fate through legal means. To this end, he illustrated again that the party conference is the ultimate triumph of hope over experience, by speaking in the seemingly sincere conviction that, beyond the zealots and attendant hacks in the hall, anyone was taking a shred of notice.
For what little it is worth, some aspects of the speech were good, and others were not. The presentation was quite impressive in the precocious Bar Mitzvah Boy style, even if talking without notes lost its gimmicky lustre a while ago. The self-deprecatory opening gag (a woman who acquitted him of geekdom while concussed) was nicely timed. If the braggadocio about taking on Rupert Murdoch and steering us away from bombing Damascus sounded forced, this is because so likable a man is not a natural born bragger.
Also fine was the stuff about freezing household energy bills, if not necessarily a game-changer on the scale of George Osborne’s inheritance tax bribe of 2008. Not fine at all, however, was the sampling of Ronald Reagan’s rhetoric from his presidential campaign in 1980. When Reagan asked Americans to ask themselves if they were worse off than four years earlier, he had been closeted away in California, far from Jimmy Carter’s economic mess. Since Mr Miliband puts the question as leader of the party widely blamed for the stagnation, the public reply will be modelled on the comic Emo Phillips’s response when a German girlfriend wondered why it was so hard to find a decent bagel in Berlin. “Yes, and whose fault’s that?”
If that was a mistake, it is not Ed Miliband’s fault that he has been stigmatised as hopelessly weak by a hostile press, or that the punters have bought the false portrait. It is certainly not his fault that the relevance of a conference speech is in direct inverse proportion to the enthusiasm with which it is received and the importance accorded it by a media desperate to hype the tediously ritualistic into melodrama.
Whether or not “Britain can be better than this”, he is unquestionably better at the delivery than he was. Yet the overwhelming sense about the substance is that he could have boiled it down to a single sentence – “Conference, fall to your knees and pray that the Ukip vote holds up” – and spent the last three months luxuriating in the ungodly brilliance of Breaking Bad.