Ed Miliband’s speech: 5 thoughts on what it means for Labour, Tories, Lib Dems and the 2015 election

Ed MilibandI listened to, rather than watched, Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference yesterday. On the up-side that meant I missed the three hammy mid-speech standing ovations (shades of IDS c.2003); on the down-side it accentuated the peculiar whooping of some of the more excitable delegates (calm down, it’s just a politician talking). In its own terms — getting noticed for its content rather than simply as an impressive no-notes memory feat — it was an undoubted success. Matthew Parris in The Times rather brilliantly captures the flavour:

Crikey — it was wild, it was weird, it was manic, it was a blast! This was so much more than a speech. And so much less. Almost every one of what passed for policy proposals will surely fall apart within days — Life on Mars had come to politics as 1970’s-style wage freezes and a kind of national incomes policy danced before our amazed eyes — but as political theatre this was sensational. We witnessed less of a speech and more a kind of Labour rave. This was Miliband unchained. The star of the show prowled his white triangular platform like an uncaged bear, cracked jokes, jerked tears, tugged heartstrings, hurled abuse . . . and the conference loved it. Yes sir (as he had shouted to an onlooker on Sunday), we really are bringing back socialism. They say conference-hall success usually precedes policy disaster. If so, Ed Miliband will soon be assailed by new criticisms. But one can now be consigned to history. He isn’t boring. Not after yesterday.

Five other thoughts struck me…

Only connect – can Ed in those live TV debates?

Ed Miliband is clearly well capable of connecting with a live audience. The conference hall was in thrall as demonstrated by the relaxed, indulgent laugh he earned for broaching the subject of Labour’s break with the trade unions. As Mark Pack pointed out when Nick Clegg received a similarly warm chuckle of sympathy at last week’s Lib Dem conference, “it’s the little things that give an insight into the real political mood”. Perhaps next year’s special conference, the crunch moment when the Labour leader will ask the movement he leads to relinquish the majority of its union-derived funding, will be a doddle after all. Of course, a pliant conference hall is one thing — can Ed connect with the tough crowd of viewers? TV news shows here rarely check audience appreciation through the real-time electronic ‘worm’, so who knows… But if I was a Tory strategist I wouldn’t be banking on Ed tanking in the televised leaders’ debate(s) after yesterday’s showing.

Can Labour change the terms of debate?

‘The Return of Red Ed’, scream this morning’s newspapers — or at least the Tory-leaning ones do, which is almost all of them minus the Mirror and Guardian. Team Ed are relaxed about that, indeed expected it. As Jonathan Freedland says in The Guardian, “He intends to talk over the heads of the Tory-supporting press, reaching viewers of Watchdog and readers of Which?” It may well work — though as the Lib Dems found in 2010, when the vicious post-Cleggmania onslaught from the press began, the drip-drip of newspaper attacks can take its toll. Their pen-knives will be out in force. Why? Because the 2015 election looks set to offer a clear choice. No longer is Labour led by someone seeking the triangulated centre-ground; Ed Miliband is offering a genuinely left-of-centre choice to the electorate. The Tories’ have assumed they can fight the next election by forcing Labour onto the defensive on immigration, welfare and schools (as well as the economy, obviously). Labour knows they can’t win on the economy, but by focusing instead on real wages, energy bills and housing — three issues reckoned to resonate more strongly — they believe they can neutralise the Tories’ attack.

Energy price freezes: there’s no such thing as a free lunch

How would Tony Blair have done it? He would, I suspect, have cut a deal with the energy companies: promise to freeze your prices for a couple of years and we’ll bung you some extra investment subsidies from the government’s capital pot. He’d have got a big cheer from consumers (who’d see their bills cut) without antagonising business (who wouldn’t pay for it). It’s no accident Ed deliberately chose a more confrontational path. The net saving to consumers is modest — an estimated £120 over 20 months — less than the Tories’ marriage tax allowance, far less than the Lib Dems’ raising of the income tax threshold. It’s a cash hand-out benefiting both rich and poor alike, something for which Labour has often attacked the Lib Dems’ tax-cuts. The difference with energy price-freezes, says Labour, is that these aren’t paid for by the taxpayer. But the reality is they will be, but more opaquely — through lower dividends for energy firm share-holders, including pension funds. “How many Ed Milibands does it take to change a light bulb?” “Why change it? All the lights have gone out.”

One man’s still smiling: Nick Clegg

One man will, I predict, be relaxed about this turn of events: Nick Clegg. The Deputy Prime Minister is the only one of the three party leaders to have staked his strategic position in 2010 and never once deviated course: he will fight the next election by placing the Lib Dems squarely in the centre of British politics. (As I’ve argued before, he has (we have) little choice: it’s where the last election result left us.) “A stronger economy and a fairer society,” we’ll prate, by which we mean “Smarter than Labour, less horrid than the Tories”. The Lib Dems — moderate, fair-minded, sensible — will act as a bulwark against the tendencies of each of the other parties to lurch to the left or drift to the right. For a while it looked like Ed Miliband’s bland, say-nothing approach could muffle that message. Until yesterday.

Austerity? Bored now.

The framework of the 2015 election is taking shape. It’s Labour populism (energy freezes) vs Lib Dem populism (free lunches) vs Conservative populism (tbc). After 5 years of downturn/flatlining, the politicians reckon the electorate wants to see some gain for the pain as the economic recovery begins. In 2010, all the politicians invoked the language of austerity (“cuts bigger than Thatcher’s,” as Alistair Darling warned) — but none of them, us included, spelled out what that meant. In 2015, with the economy growing — along with the UK’s burgeoning debt burden — it seems all the politicians will once again engage in sleight-of-hand, happily pulling rabbits out of hats and awaiting the electorate’s round of applause. Even though the rabbits were paid for by the audience and the hats are on loan. Remember austerity? It’s just so last year.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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26 Comments

  • paul barker 25th Sep '13 - 4:19pm

    No doubt Labour will get a temporary Conference boost in The “Polls”, we wont know if anything real has changed for another month or so.
    We do know what has happened this year though, Labours Polling Average has dropped 5% in the last 7 months. That is a big shift. To give an idea of how big – if we projected that fall forwards to May 2015 Labour would be on 24%.
    What we dont & cant know is why Labours average has fallen & whether its continuing factors like the Improvement in The Economy or the approach of Election Day or just some temporary effect.
    That fall in “The Polls” plus The “Special Conference” provide the backdrop for Millibands New Strategy.

  • peter tyzack 25th Sep '13 - 4:40pm

    ‘impressive no-notes memory feat’, don’t make me laugh, he had the same scrolling text machine that Nick uses.

  • Matt (Bristol) 25th Sep '13 - 4:49pm

    “The framework of the 2015 election is taking shape. It’s Labour populism (energy freezes) vs Lib Dem populism (free lunches) vs Conservative populism (tbc). ”

    Interesting to note you’re still framing this as a 3-horse race. No Salmond or Farage in your equation?

  • You would need to be comfortably into your fifties to remember the last Labour government that bore a resemblance to the one that Ed Milliband appears, in some of the policies outlined in this speech, to be promoting to the electorate. The party continued to be rooted in socialism for a further decade and a bit, so most people over 40 will have some idea, however vague, of what Milliband’s vision of the future might look like. And having experienced it once they are, for the most part, unlikely to have nostalgic feelings for the politics of that era. But I am also inclined to think that antipathy to a socialist Labour Party has entered the culture of all age groups, and that therefore Ed needs to be very careful about policies which allow memories of Harold Wilson era politics to be invoked, however popular they may be with the party faithful, because although they may enable him to shore up his position in the party, and pile up the votes in Labour heartlands, they will not be received so well in the middle England seats he needs to gain if he is to form a government (which he won’t).

  • Stuart Mitchell 25th Sep '13 - 9:11pm

    Five years ago, Nick Clegg was banging on almost weekly in PMQs about the hardship caused by rising energy prices, demanding that Gordon Brown should force the energy companies to reduce bills. I’m sure Stephen Tall will remember as he used to quote these exchanges regularly in his articles.

    Five years on, and Ed’s* plan to force energy companies to keep bills down will apparently be a disaster and make everybody worse off indirectly anyway. Hmm.

    * I mean Ed Milliband of course. Ed Davey’s supposed efforts to keep bills down don’t seem to have the same undesirable side effects.

  • Helen Tedcastle – “In fact politics was more political, if that makes sense”. Yes, absolutely, but that is why I think that that era still resonates so strongly today. The Labour Party is still in a post-defeat state of flux: John Smith and Neil Kinnock presented a much clearer idea of the sort of party they were trying to create than Ed Milliband does at the moment, but my sense of his speech (admittedly partisan) is that he was pressing buttons that he knew would appeal to Labour Party atavism rather than trying to build a coherent set of policies that might appeal to the people outside the core vote that he needs.

  • Miliband’s pitch is as much about trying to get people to vote who haven’t voted for a while as of winning vote share. Whether or not he will do so, who knows.

  • “Any examples of where I called for price freezes in energy prices?”

    Stuart said you used to quote Clegg’s statements. Obviously that’s different from you expressing your personal opinion.

    Anyhow, here’s just one example that Google threw up – written by you – reporting Clegg asking Gordon Brown to “now agree to act” and that energy company profits “should be handed back to the neediest customers through lower energy prices”.
    https://www.libdemvoice.org/pmqs-nick-tackles-gordon-on-northern-rock-and-energy-prices-2210.html

    In other words, he wanted the government to act to bring about lower energy prices, not just a freeze.

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 26th Sep '13 - 9:22am

    The Labour Party is not going back to Wilson/Callaghan state socialism, Ed Miliband is far cleverer than that. He intends to use the state to apply market pressure: hence companies to provide apprenticeships in return for immigrant workers: companies to receive government contracts only if they fulfil certain conditions such as the creation of apprenticeships. He sees the state as the defender of the consumer, hence his stand against the energy rip-off to which your government ‘s response has been so weak; hence his intended repeal of your loathed bedroom tax; hence his intended repeal of your loathed privatisation of the NHS. This is modern socialism in action.

  • andrew purches 26th Sep '13 - 9:25am

    A promise of a price freeze for energy supply might appeal to the uncommitted voter, but it will largely depend upon what is to be put on freeze. Gas and the Leccy obviously, but will this include fuel oils and liquid gas, which is largely the power source for heating in rural areas? From a small to medium sized business user such a freeze will be a short term benefit, but is unlikely to make much difference from a vote winning standpoint. So, a good soundbite perhaps, not much else. It does put the energy companies on the back foot, but they will find plenty of wriggle room I am sure. The Lib Dems could go further though, and make market price variations in the production field up or down to be passed on to the retail customer immediately. This is largely done in the road fuel market – though not as quickly as it might be when prices fall- and could be made mandatory by government. They might also propose to zero VAT again on domestic energy supplies. I suggest that together these two policies would win electoral support, and would not be argued against with any conviction by the energy companies.

  • Peter Watson 26th Sep '13 - 9:47am

    I think that a few years back (2008/9?), Vince Cable also called for a cap on energy price rises and a referral to the Competition Commission.

  • Jayne Mansfield 26th Sep '13 - 2:14pm

    @ Helen Hardcastle.
    It is also sad to see how far to the right the so called ‘centre ‘ ( a moving feast) has become if a politician is labelled Red Ed for attempting to make the markets work so that the consumer isn’t fleeced.

    The Independent has an excellent article by two experts , one for and one against Ed Miliband’s proposed policy.
    For- Reg Platt, a senior research fellow at the IPPR
    Against- Professor Philip Booth. Editorial and Programme Director at the Institute of Economic Affairs.

    The right wing press have been keen to publish the arguments of Professor Booth, many of which have been taken up by Lib Dem Voice contibutors, but less keen to publish the alternative argument supporting Ed Miliband’s proposals.

  • Despite the standard Conference hype for the faithful comrades I enjoyed Milliband’s speech. He actually mentioned unemployed people with families looking for work rather that intoning the ‘hardworkingfamilies’ a la Clegg. The poor are below the horizon of a government which has capped benefit, introduce the bedroom tax, harassed disabled people whilst stalwartly defending Bankers’ bonuses all with the support of Nick Clegg who claims to occupy the middle ground. This was not the middle ground for which I campaigned for 30 years . Is the middle ground now defined by the Orange Book?

  • Roger Roberts 26th Sep '13 - 5:11pm

    Interesting comments,but how manyof our party would happily be in co-alition with Labour than the Tories.
    Whilst we may mock Ed on his idea of freezing energy bills, a large part of the electorate would happily vote for it.
    The bedroom tax is another example I am appalled that we have actually can along with this.
    I know many in our party probably are nearer the right of centre than others but do i want a party that seems to be clobbering the least well off . I am not sure that I do and I have spent more years on the doorstep that i care to remember. Whilst Ed M’s speech was full of nice things dont be fooled that the public will not be interested in them.
    Also remember Labour are now taking on the mantle of pavement polotics that we started and they are recruiting the young people to promote it.
    Not all of us in the party necessarily want to be anchored in the centre ground

  • Peter Watson 26th Sep '13 - 11:43pm

    @paul barker “No doubt Labour will get a temporary Conference boost in The “Polls”, we wont know if anything real has changed for another month or so.”
    Looks like you’re right there. Todays YouGov poll for The Sun: CON 32, LAB 41, LD 8, UKIP 11.
    Quite probably an outlier, but it must be worrying that Lib Dems had no boost after their conference, and the apparent Labour bounce is in the face of most aspects of their conference being drowned out by huge negative publicity across the media for one policy.

  • peter tyzack 25th Sep ’13 – 4:40pm
    ‘impressive no-notes memory feat’, don’t make me laugh, he had the same scrolling text machine that Nick uses.

    You’re wrong on this. Many journalists were live tweeting the speech & looking for signs of autocue but found none.

    Still, good to see you couldn’t find anything to fault in the speech.

  • Matt (Bristol) 27th Sep '13 - 10:04am

    @Helen Tedcastle: Well said. There is too much “ooooh, he used the word ‘socialism’, mummy! help!” going on in this thread. This from a party that claims the Social Democratic Party as on of its antecedents.

    I think the biggest problem that many are pointing out here is not what Ed is proposing Labour do, it is the timing – that he is giving the energy companies 2-3 years notice to try to rig the market as much as possible in advance of his party’s reforms being potentially enacted (assuming they govern with a majority and can enact them wholesale). But, yes, did Vince do much differently with his rhetoric a few months / years ago?

    There are many who might vote for the party who would not want state intervention in markets completely ruled out, but would regard it as an option only when the market breaks down or enacts obvious injustice; the discernment politicians have to make is when has that happened, and how should the state intervene?

    I think it also fair to add that many LD voters are more favourable to state intervention at regional/local level then they are on a national, centrallising level. That is a key area of distinctiveness over Labour; of course, I grew up in an era when energy companies had effective regional monopolies like water providers still do, so regional controls may have made more sense then than they would now…

  • Mack(Not a Lib Dem) 27th Sep '13 - 10:54am

    @Helen Tedcastle

    “except that the Lib Dem conference voted to get rid of it too last week.”

    Yes, the Liberal Democrats’ talent for dissembling and hedging their bets has reached new heights. Your party is in power: your party could get rid of the loathesome bedroom tax now: could stop the hardship, the mental torment and the injustice by walking away from it. But all you do is pass a meaningless vote and keep implementing the policy.

  • nuclear cockroach 27th Sep '13 - 11:05am

    @Mack (NALD)

    I suppose to repeat a falsehood sufficiently frequently with sufficient feigned sincerity, I suppose you might end up believing it. However, despite your usual refrain, the National Health Service has not been privatised. There was no IPO. I also rather doubt that Ed Miliband’s government (should that come to pass) would reverse Andrew Lansley’s changes to the commissioning of health services within the NHS. What would be the point? Just more expense and time-wasting with no clear benefit. I might be wrong, though, as Miliband is said to be intelligent, but much of that intelligence seems directed to improving his popularity with the true believers, rather than a wider audience.

  • nuclear cockroach 27th Sep '13 - 11:10am

    @Roger Roberts

    “how manyof our party would happily be in co-alition with Labour than the Tories.”

    Two thirds of Lib Dem members and two thirds of voters who have expressed a preference would prefer a coalition with Labour. A statistic which has remained unchanged for a very long time indeed, and still holds true.

  • Nuclear co ckroach – 8 out of 10 owners said their cats preferred it

  • Parris: ‘1970’s-style wage freezes’

    Pardon me, but I thought that was what we had already? Not to mention 10-15% inflation since the last election.

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