There's something different about Ed Miliband when he steps onto the stage at Labour party conferences. He is, in many ways, an awkward media performer, often garbled, often repetitive, often unclear. Yet, as he showed in Manchester last year and in Brighton on Tuesday, he is capable of pulling a good performance out of the bag. It's like watching a man trying to chop down trees - for one day a year he gets to use an axe, while on all the others he only has a bag of marshmallows.
All the ingredients of a successful modern conference speech were thrown in: no notes, the young people seated behind the speaker, the absence of a podium, the slightly-less-naff-than-normal jokes, and, of course, the stories of people from around the country who conveniently reflect the leader's own views and policy solutions. It's all cheesy stuff, obviously, and the format has been repeated so often that few are impressed when it's done well anymore. What works in these speeches is a smidge of light fluff (to show the human side, apparently, though to me they only ever come across as hideously clunky) garnishing big headlines, repeated themes, and a consistent, reinforced through-line.
Miliband certainly had a through-line, that's for sure. His big theme? 'Britain can do better than this' - a phrase repeated twenty-five times in the speech, often in pairs for extra emphasis. The phrase is all over the Twitter feeds of Miliband and Labour, and went out on an e-mail to party members shortly after conference closed for the day. He obviously sees this umbrella idea as a winner, an overarching theme that encompasses the flaws of the coalition. Miliband is a strong problem identifier, and he has managed to unify areas where he thinks the coalition are failing - energy bills, inflation outstripping wages, and the dearth of affordable housing - under a common idea of a government that isn't delivering for ordinary people. The suggestion that 'Britain can do better than this' is hard to argue with and resonates with ordinary people who occupy an economy that isn't helping them succeed on a day-to-day basis. Praise must also go to the Labour leader for the skill of his about-turn on the economy - Tuesday's speech signalled the completion of Labour's summer transition from their line that 'Osborne's plan-A will never deliver growth' to the more accurate and damaging one that 'this is a recovery for the few, not the many.' Miliband has retained the idea of Tory failure in the face of their attempts to use positive growth figures to prove otherwise. This is a sly move - who can argue with the basic principle that the rich in Britain seem to be operating on a different playing field to the poor, or that there is a mini-economy in the south-east that seemed to waft through the recession, impervious to the pain of normal people?
Some of Miliband's speech was, however, rather more shallow. There was a great dollop of populism in there that came across as rather transparent electoral positioning. For instance, Miliband's applause lines on the NHS, the police and the armed forces did what they were there to do - get applause, in case you were wondering - but the speech itself was rather thin on the ground in terms of policy in those areas. Will he get rid of the Police and Crime Commissioners? Will he boot the private sector out of the health service? What about the future direction of defence policy? It's understandable that Miliband didn't want to swamp the speech with grand policy headlines, but you can't have your cake and eat it too, dangling these themes in front of an appreciative audience while at the same time failing to engage with them in any depth. Voters who go to the ballot box on single-issues like crime and defence don't lean Labour, and Miliband will need a good number of them to defect if he's to occupy Number Ten. He was also extremely light and vague with regards to the Scottish referendum, which could still put the kibosh on any hope of a Labour majority - he must be hoping Alistair Darling does his job properly in 2014.
Nevertheless, it was a good speech, and more importantly, a relevant one. Miliband's major ideas - an energy prices freeze, repealing the bedroom tax, a fairer minimum wage, lower taxes for small businesses and stimulus for house-building - are good ones, and they knit into his existing themes of One Nation and the squeezed middle. Whether he has regained the front foot after a lacklustre summer is yet to become clear; it will be interesting, in particular, to see how David Cameron responds to Miliband's energy freeze next week in Manchester. The challenges that Miliband faces, however, are still looming large on the horizon, good speech or not.
Miliband is a solid opposition leader, capable of seizing the initiative, strong at identifying problems with which people identify, and often (if not often enough) bold in his decisions. The problem that remains is that he only ever exhibits these strengths in patches. It's not enough to merely have the ideas - he must relentlessly hammer them home, repeating them again and again, stressing the positives clearly and concisely. The proof that this works lies in one simple phrase: 'the mess we inherited from Labour.' The Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have been banging on about that, day and night, for three years. And, lo and behold, it's stuck in the minds of millions of voters. Crude, yes. Subtle, no. But it does work, and Miliband must do the same if he's to get his messages to stick.
The impact that Miliband's last conference speech made was big, it was loud, and then, all too suddenly, it was lost. Labour cannot allow the same to happen in 2013. Miliband and his team must now be focusing, absolutely and totally, on 2015. They have the messages - or, at least, some of them. They have to bury them deep in the consciousness of the average voter. Miliband's autumn reshuffle, expected soon, must be tooled with that idea in mind, putting heavyweight figures behind the flagship policy ideas and driving them home. Labour arrived in Brighton in a mood of defeatism. Miliband's speech may have dragged them away from the black dog - but the advantage gained must be harnessed if he hopes to arrive at the 2014 party conference in a dramatically improved position.Suggest a correction