It was billed as a defining moment, but when it came it was a damp squib. Ed Miliband’s appearance at the TUC conference yesterday was a crucial opportunity to regain the initiative after a summer of in-fighting and falling poll ratings. The best that can be said of it, however, is that he was not actually booed – although even that might have been preferable to so spiritless a performance.
In fairness, it was always going to be tricky: the Labour leader’s acceptance of austerity is unpopular enough, and his plans to reform the links between his party and the unions are downright incendiary. Even so, he failed to rise to the occasion.
Instead, Mr Miliband gave a speech that sounded like any number of others. True, he asserted his determination to press on with reforms cast as a return to the “vision of our founders” rather than an attack on union power. He also tried hard to explain why recognising the need for fiscal discipline does not render Labour no different from the Tories. But he carefully avoided saying anything he has not said before.
And what of his audience? For all that Mr Miliband repeatedly addressed them as “friends”, his listeners were anything but. They heard most of his speech in silence, with the only whiff of real feeling in response to the promise to ban the more egregious forms of zero-hours contracts.
Mr Miliband’s critics will claim that, by avoiding confrontation, he has proved he cannot stand up to the unions. Not necessarily. There is some tactical virtue in taking things slow. Equally, it was unrealistic to expect much new policy, with the Labour conference just two weeks away. But Mr Miliband will have to do better than this if he is to stymie his opponents, both inside and outside the party. He was hanging by a thread before; he hangs there still.