POLITICS

Ed Miliband Gives A Poor Speech At Labour Conference, But Will It Really Stop Him Winning?

23/09/2014 18:27 BST | Updated 23/09/2014 18:59 BST
Bloomberg via Getty Images
Ed Miliband, leader of the U.K. opposition Labour Party, addresses delegates at the party's annual conference in Manchester, U.K., on Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014. Miliband will today offer voters a 10-year vision of the U.K. if his opposition Labour Party wins power in next year's general election, focusing on bread-and-butter issues such as housing, jobs and pay. Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg via Getty Images

There are two things you need to know about Ed Miliband's setpiece speech at Labour's last party conference before the 2015 general election.

The first is that it was, without a shadow of a doubt, the weakest conference speech he has delivered since becoming leader of the Labour Party four years ago.

Loyal Labour members stifled yawns. Journalists checked their watches. The first standing ovation for the party leader, from his party's delegates in the packed hall in Manchester, came an epic 45 minutes into his notes-free address.

It was a lengthy, messy and pretty tedious speech; bereft of punchy policies or pithy putdowns. Miliband's only big announcement, taxing mansions (bad), hedge funds (bad) and cigarettes (bad) to spend £2.5bn on more doctors (good), nurses (good) and healthcare assistants (good), lacked oomph, having been leaked to the BBC's Nick Robinson late last night and splashed on the front page of today's Times.

His attacks on Tory privilege, egged on by an audience of Tory-loathing Labour delegates, had, at times, the a touch of the panto dame to them. The only anti-Conservative 'zinger' to produce a genuine laugh in the hall, from delegates and journalists alike, was his dig at the prime minister's use of patriotic language for partisan purposes: "David Cameron doesn’t lie awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom. He lies awake at night thinking about the United Kingdom Independence Party."

Overall, however, the speech lacked energy and failed to electrify his audience. It wasn't so much the content - Miliband was strong, as usual, on living standards and on standing up to vested interests - as the delivery. To be fair to the Labour leader, prior to today, his conference speeches have, contrary to the conventional wisdom, been pretty impressive and wide-ranging - from 'producers versus predators' in 2011, to 'One Nation' in 2012, to the 'energy prize freeze' in 2013.

What went wrong this year? From strategists to delegates, shadow ministers to backbenchers, Labour figures arrived in Manchester tired, weary and distracted by the referendum battle north of the border. As the Spectator's James Forsyth pointed out, Miliband's speech would probably "have been a lot better if it hadn’t been for Scotland absorbing all Labour’s energies in past month. It needed tightening."

It also needed more boldness, and less caution. The Labour leader spent several minutes recounting banal anecdotes involving 'real people' he had just happened to bump into in recent months, such as 'Gareth', 'Josephine' and 'Colin'; far fewer discussing the fate of ISIS hostage Alan Henning and the ongoing US air strikes in the Middle East. (Miliband, apparently, wants a UN Security Council resolution prior to UK involvement in any military action but he didn't have much else to say about the biggest geopolitical crisis of our time.)

The one word I have heard most here in Manchester to describe this conference is "flat". "It feels like a fucking morgue," as one activist bluntly put it to me. Nevertheless, the only thing flatter than the conference itself was the leader's 65-minute speech.

A self-styled 'radical' politician with a transformative political agenda, and a burning desire to change the way Britain is governed, may have fluffed his last big pre-election chance to spell out his radicalism or demonstrate the ambitiousness of his plans.

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So, is this a catastrophe for Miliband and Labour? Not really, as the second thing you need to know about his speech is that however awfully-delivered, poorly-crafted or passion-free it may have been, it won't make an iota of difference to the result of next May's general election. Labour, not the Conservatives, are still the favourites.

Conference speeches, remember, don't decide elections. Political journalists may not want you to know that - why would we want we want to do ourselves out of our jobs or junkets? - but it's God's honest truth. Can any of you - any of them? - cite a single line from David Cameron's 2009 conference speech, ahead of 2010's general election? No? I didn't think so.

Why are party conference speeches so seemingly inconsequential? Aren't they the one moment of the year that voters pay attention to party leaders, especially on the nighty news bulletins? Not quite. Conference speeches, like TV debates, tend not to change many minds. And they tend to attract the attention of TV news viewers who already have a long-standing interest in Westminster politics; viewers who tend not to be swing voters.

Meanwhile, as the Tory commentator Iain Martin conceded on Monday: "The electoral facts of life advantage Labour."

Let's recap, for the psephologically uninitiated: Cameron needs to increase his share of the vote to win a majority in 2015, something no sitting British prime minister has managed to pull off in the past four decades, Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair included. He also needs a bigger lead (7%) over Labour to secure a Commons majority than the lead (2%) that Labour needs over the Conservatives to do the same.

Labour continues to lead in the polls; Ukip continues to snap at the Tories' heels (with the Clacton by-election around the corner); Scotland, with its 41 Labour MPs and single, solitary Tory representative, continues to be a part of the United Kingdom.

Miliband, therefore, should leave Manchester disappointed with having missed an opportunity to shine, and having delivered a particularly poor speech, but upbeat about his own position and the prospects of a Labour victory come May 2015.