Miliband's speech was ok on argument, good on delivery, and bad on Labour's atonement

The party leader was surprisingly funny and confident in Manchester. But predictably enough he addressed the party faithful rather than the country at large
  • @amolrajan

Ed Miliband’s tasks this afternoon were threefold: first, to argue rationally that come 2015, it will be time for a change in Britain; second, to explain in an emotionally engaging way that he is capable of embodying that change; third, and related, to show that Labour has understood its failures when last in power. How did he fare? In order: ok, quite well, and not very well.

On the first, he was hobbled by timing. Two and a half years ahead of a General Election, it wasn’t plausible for him to list a bunch of policy positions. And as Steve Richards argued in this morning’s Independent, we do in any case know quite a lot about what Miliband and Ed Balls would do. Still, the speech was strikingly short of detail: too short, in fact.

We thought we might hear some specifics about a living wage or taxes on wealth – a mansion tax, for instance – but there was none of that. Instead we got a moderately effective critique of the Coalition’s failings – particularly on the economy, where the government will borrow an extra £465bn between 2009-10 and 2014-15, as against New Labour’s extra £319bn between 1996-7 and 2009-10 – and a reasonable denunciation of its u-turns, botched Budgets, and complete mismanagement of the NHS.

On the second, his delivery seemed vastly and surprisingly improved. There were some good jokes about David Cameron’s tax status and new Cabinet appointments, and minimal stumbling. It was confidently done, and the much-vaunted trumpeting of his comprehensive education wasn’t laid on too thick. There was plenty of this is where I come from, this is what I believe, I might be an atheist of Jewish heritage but that’s ok because this is modern Britain and that’s how we roll. His invocation of Benjamin Disraeli's One Nation Conservatism is a reasonable but highly unoriginal gambit. The 0.1 per cent of Britain, or less, who watched the whole thing would have had their feeling that he’s a nice guy confirmed; for everyone else, they’ll probably be marginally less inclined to describe him as a weirdo. Not bad.

On the third, there wasn’t enough. All party conferences induce leaders to address the party faithful instead of the country. Tony Blair was exceptional in defying that trend. Today too, Miliband could have done much more to recognise public anger over Labour’s profligate spending, liberal immigration, and big welfare bill. He did briefly mention the fact that some of the Coalition’s cuts will be retained, that we’ll all have to work for longer, that Labour didn’t care enough for public concern over immigration, and that those who can work, should work. But a confrontation with the failings of the past this was not.

It’s always silly to pretend these speeches matter very much. Nobody cares about them outside of those who pore over every word. But when Miliband gets his few minutes on the news this evening, he and his advisers will reflect with mild satisfaction on the decent gags, hyper-confident delivery and tolerable lack of detail that make this his best conference speech yet. I’d give him 5/10, if 1 is your average PMQs performance, and 10 is Lincoln at Gettysburg. There’s a compliment in that.

Read Oliver Wright's verdict on the speech here.