Wednesday, 29 September 2010

Ed Miliband: the 'honest optimist'

It was supposed to be the speech which broke the mould. Less than three days after being announced as Labour's new leader, a fresh, wide-eyed idealist bounded up to the stage. With an overriding theme of youth throughout the speech - in a marked contrast to the weighty years of experience of his predecessor - this was not an occasion at which the old guard would feel comfortable.
Ed Miliband hammered home, directly to the Shadow Cabinet, his personal beliefs of where New Labour had gone wrong - "I understand that the promise of the new politics of 1997 came to look incredibly hollow after the scandal of MP's expenses". He spared a more traditional vitriol for the Coalition, occasionally verging on the sanctimonious, and constantly referring to government being something that Labour had the right to take back: "If we are not the party, nobody will be". A personal jibe at David Cameron enforced his view of Britain simply being in reckless hands: "You were once the optimist but now all you can offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what Britain can achieve. And you hide behind the deficit to justify it. We won't let you get away with it".

This speech was both different in tone and content from the dramatic set pieces of Tony Blair and the solid, statistic heavy reports of Gordon Brown (although Miliband teased the audience briefly with an old Brown line "thank you for what you did", interminably repeated at large party events to acknowledge activists' tireless work). Instead, Miliband projected a more fragile, nervous understatement. After all, until just a few weeks ago it was not expected that he would win. There was even a hint of this last-minute nature in the jokes, some of which would not have been out of place in a best man's speech, scribbled on the back of an envelope the night before: "I stole David's football, so he nationalised my train set". And, reflecting the theme of youth and the new generation, an affectionate but pointed remark aimed at Jack Straw "what was it like to meet the man who invented the wheel, Jack?" only served to underline the boyish qualities of the new leader.

Ed Miliband's comradely, fraternal language echoed a political training spent in debating halls. Overwhelmingly, this was a speech to a pitched to "friends" at a Labour Party branch meeting or a left-leaning thinktank - both environments in which Mr Miliband is inherently more comfortable - and not the conference hall of an aspirant Prime Minister. More precisely, it addressed the sort of people with whom he has spent the past four months, and not Great Britain.

Overshadowed by the failure of his older brother's campaign to clinch the leadership, there were key questions of legitimacy to answer. Did Ed possess the oratory skill of his brother? Many people doubted as to whether he could articulate a vision of Labour that was forward looking and believable. Proving that the Labour party had caught up with a sizeable and aggrieved part of the electorate over the Iraq issue, Miliband boldly repeated the conviction which characterised his campaign when he spoke to the party at large:

"We were wrong. Wrong to take Britain to war and we need to be honest about that...wrong because that war was not a last resort...we did not build sufficient alliances and...we undermined the United Nations."

Pacing towards a crescendo finish, Miliband adopted a poetic, tub-thumping rhythm not dissimilar to Blair and Brown, with regular nods to the party's heritage. This was a man brought up by passionate activists, which showed as he comfortably referenced the pivotal figures of the Labour movement who, at one time, as Miliband of Brothers told us, most were present in his parents' dining room. Although there was much in the speech to reassure party members, at no time did he excite the audience beyond the polite reception you might normally expect from a Labour conference.

This was a positive, upbeat speech, honest about the past and hopeful about the future. Opposition parties and the press alike were unsure of what to make of his inaugural address; labelling him either as a thoughtful, candid newcomer or a dangerous, left-wing union bidder. But, with just three days in the job, there was a general consensus that he wasn't quite ready for Downing Street just yet. After all it took David Cameron nearly five years to make that transition, and Neil Kinnock, a front-row advocate of Ed, never made it after nine. The recent history of British social democracy reminds us there's a bigger story behind new leadership rejecting past ideas and going on to win elections - particularly when you've been blessed by a predecessor. Another Clause IV moment could yet happen.

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