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Let me list everything and anything that was positive about Ed Miliband's speech

Our political commentator tries to give the Labour leader the benefit of the doubt

John Rentoul
Tuesday 23 September 2014 17:57 BST

It is easy to criticise and make fun of Ed Miliband’s speeches, and many people on Twitter did it well. So let me try to do something different and say what was good about it.

It had one effective line in it. “David Cameron does not lie awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom. He lies awake thinking about the United Kingdom Independence Party. That is why he is doing it and I say pandering to them is just one more reason why he is not fit to be the Prime Minister of this great country.”

It is not true, of course. Anyone who pays the slightest attention to politics knows that Cameron is possibly the Conservative most resistant to the tactic of appeasing Ukip. He knows, because he is not an idiot, that he will hold onto power only by holding onto the centre ground.

It suits Labour to portray Cameron’s promise of a referendum on Europe as a desperate attempt to win back Ukip’s voters, but that overlooks Cameron’s intention to try to keep Britain in the EU and tries to distract attention from Miliband’s embarrassment that he is not prepared to trust the people.

The speech had a theme, cleverly built on the success of the Better Together campaign in Scotland. Miliband counterposed “together” against “you’re on your own”. It was standard Labour boilerplate, but it would not have disgraced a Gordon Brown or a Tony Blair speech. Oh, and Miliband remembered to mention Brown this time, in his Oscar-winner’s-style thank-yous.

His invocation of Englishness was no clumsier than most politicians’ have been. The Battle of Cable Street. The Blitz. Ford workers at Dagenham who fought for equal pay. The campaign for a living wage. The Spanish Civil War. Apart from a subliminal reference to George Orwell (he was something to do with the Spanish Civil War, wasn’t he?), the Englishness rather than Britishness of the list was obscure. But no more embarrassing than Gordon Brown’s many meditations on Britishness, so transparently designed to offset the perception of him as a Scottish politician in a Westminster parliament.

At a couple of points, Miliband seemed to recognise that politics and politicians have a big problem in earning even minimal trust from the voters. He is right to say that constitutional change in England as a response to further devolution to Scotland should come from the bottom up rather than be an elite project. I’m sure that this means nothing will happen, which is fine by me. And he referred to people’s scepticism about the scope of his ambition for “a different ethic for Britain”. But his answer to that was to double up the moonshine: “That idea is everywhere around us to see. The inspiration is everywhere for a different way of doing things.”

The new policy in the speech, clamping down on tax avoidance to pay for more doctors and nurses in the NHS, was the sort of thing that might have padded out the compulsory health section of a speech given by a Conservative, Labour or Liberal party leader at any time since 1948. Only a few brave souls could disagree with it, although plenty more are entitled to ask how the NHS would be better administered under a Labour government.

Finally, there was one notable virtue of the speech. It was not quite as long as the 80 minutes that was brilliantly and mischievously briefed to Andrew Neil beforehand. So it was just a normal boring 60-minute leader’s party conference speech, not a very boring one.

For the rest, I thought it was lamentable, weak, clichéd, embarrassing, uninspiring, stylistically inept, vacuous, unambitious, grandiose, cringeworthy, patronising, foolish, an unappetising blend of impossiblism and incrementalism, and a complete and final disaster for the Labour Party.

Twitter: @JohnRentoul

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