Ed Miliband came out fighting yesterday. After three tough years in the top job, and a summer of sniping from his own side, the Labour leader faced the challenge of his political career at his party’s autumn conference. Anything less than convincing, and his chances of political survival were slim.
The speech itself was no masterpiece, perhaps because it was trying to do too much at once. But what he lacked in coherence, Mr Miliband made up for in panache. For someone who is not a natural orator, it was a bravura performance – a relaxed, confident hour-plus of aspirational “Britain can do better than this”, without the benefit of notes. He needed to woo the party faithful; and he did it in spades.
But what of the message so beguilingly delivered? Last year’s theme, the nebulous notion of “One Nation” got the odd mention. But, to Mr Miliband’s credit, this year’s address was a meatier affair. With repeated recourse to stories from “real people”, the Labour leader painted a picture of a divided country with the wrong priorities. What economic recovery there is, he said, is for the few rather than the many, leaving us with a “cost of living crisis”. And where the Tories are exacerbating it by engaging in a global race to the bottom, Mr Miliband wants Britain to “win the race to the top” (a slogan repeated ad nauseam).
So far, so familiar. But Mr Miliband also finally set out some clear policy commitments, dragging his would-be government out of the realm of theory for the first time. Some of his ideas are sensible enough – the pledge to ensure all primary schools offer after-hours care, for example. Some are of dubious practicality – such as the pledge to force any company hiring a skilled non-EU worker to set up an apprenticeship to train up a British worker. Others are of dubious value – the promise to tax larger businesses more and smaller ones less, say.
But the real show-stopper, neatly combining the twin crusades against living costs and vested interests, was the promise to freeze energy bills. The pledge will likely prove popular. It is also clever politics, stealing a march on Coalition efforts to talk tough on electricity costs. But while it is easy for Mr Miliband to say that power companies will be forced to bring down their prices yet keep investing, it is altogether less clear how that might be achieved.
Similarly, while he is right that Britain’s housing crisis must be a priority for any government, the plan for legislation forcing property companies to forfeit their land if they do not use it, prompts as many questions as it answers.
Both proposals went down well with the conference audience. Whether the wider public will be equally receptive remains to be seen. For some, land appropriation and price controls will be too much of a lurch to the left, no matter how well-intentioned. What is certain, however, is that Mr Miliband has, finally, filled in at least some of the blanks. If the job of the Opposition is to offer a clear alternative, then the Labour leader has discharged his responsibilities admirably.