Ed Miliband set out his stall this afternoon not with an eye to remaining the Labour Party’s leader, but to becoming its next prime minister.
His speech to delegates at the party’s Manchester conference had been widely touted as an opportunity to let people know who he was – but that only made up about a quarter of what he had to say. Of course, there was an expected round of introductory small talk designed to loosen up the attendees, which included former leader Neil Kinnock and a sizeable contingent of London 2012 Gamesmakers, drafted in for one last climb into their branded polo shirts before the mothballs come out. Miliband stressed that he was a pretty normal guy, born in the same NHS hospital that delivered his children, and a Dallas fan in his youth – something that wound up his renowned Leftist intellectual father no end.
But this quickly gave way to a more strident sense of purpose. Unusually for a party leader, Miliband made a point of noting that he has no religious faith – saying that his belief in the ability of people and politics to exert positive change is the faith that motivates him. His journey to that view, he said, began when he was introduced to a family friend from South Africa, who told him about the dire social landscape offered by apartheid and gave him an incentive to work for change through politics.
Miliband said that his father “would have loved the idea of Red Ed”, but would have been disappointed to learn that this media characterisation was untrue. Instead, Miliband said, he wants to reach out to all sections of society, from a “whole generation of young people who feel that Britain under this government is not offering them a future”, to small-business owners who feel that they are being ripped off by their banks. He pointed out the need to tackle “deep problems about who Britain is run for”, and portrayed himself as the man who would lead one country, not two. This was especially important, he said, in a year when Olympic victors had ranged “from Zara Philips, the granddaughter of a parachuting queen, to a young boy born in Somalia by the name of Mo Farah.”
The odds against the success of London’s original Olympic bid were beaten, Miliband argued, by people from diverse backgrounds all working together. “I can’t remember a time like it,” he said. “That sense of a country united. That is the country that this Labour Party believes in.” As part of that belief, Miliband borrowed the central message from a three-hour speech given in the same city 140 years ago by historic Tory leader Benjamin Disraeli. In that speech, said Miliband, Disraeli painted a “vision of Britain coming together” to overcome adversity – not a fractured nation split by poverty or privilege, but One Nation. It was a phrase that Miliband would go on to repeat at least 15 times. While he stressed that he “didn’t become leader of the Labour Party to build the same world as Disraeli or Atlee”, he argued that “with one million people out of work we just can’t succeed as a country … with so many people being told for so long that you’re on your own to succeed for yourself, we just can’t succeed as a country”.
That opened the way for a spell of clearly distinguishing himself from current prime minister David Cameron. “I understand why you voted for him,” he said to voters that “turned away” from Labour at the last election. “I understand why you were willing to give David Cameron the benefit of the doubt.” But, he added, “we have seen recession, higher unemployment, higher borrowing [and] I don’t think that’s what people were promised … If the medicine’s not working, you change the medicine. And you change the doctor too.”
Tax cuts for the wealthy, said Miliband, would effectively write cheques of £40,000 per year to each millionaire. And, he joked, “David Cameron isn’t just writing the cheques – he’s going to be getting one!” Miliband pointed out that the tax cut “wouldn’t be happening without Nick Clegg and the Liberal Democrats” – a line that excited a chorus of boos from the crowd at Clegg’s expense – and warned: “Don’t ever let anyone in this government tell us again that we’re all in this together.”
On basic leadership criteria, Miliband contended, the Coalition had failed time and time again – while they think they’re born to rule, he said, they have proven to be a “pledge-breaking, back-of-the-envelope, incompetent shower”. By now the crowd was whipped into precisely the kind of mood that leaders at conferences like their audiences to be in, and Miliband ran through a laundry list of government gaffes – such as the pasty tax, the granny tax and panic at the pumps – before turning to the plight of education minister Lord Hill, who tried to quit last month in a meeting with Cameron, but the prime minister was so distracted by other business that he didn’t hear what Hill had said. “This lot are so useless, they can’t even resign properly!” chided the Labour leader.
Miliband admitted that public-sector workers would not have an easy ride if Labour win the next election, but argued that the difference between the Coalition and a government led by him would be that “those with the broadest shoulders would always bear the greatest burden”. Significantly, Miliband signalled a strong intention to “move on” from New Labour, criticising that version of the party for being “too silent about the responsibilities of those at the top and too timid about the accountability of those in power”. He then issued what amounted to a personal warning to Rupert Murdoch that “no one is too powerful to be held to account”.
Miliband was equally straight with the banks, telling them, “either you fix yourselves, or the next Labour government will ensure that the high-street bank is no longer the arm of a casino operation, and will break you up by law.” This was followed by a swingeing critique of Coalition NHS policy, in which Miliband earned his first standing ovation by attacking the “waste” of a top-down, free-market style reorganisation in an institution that is based upon a “whole different set of values”. He pledged that a Labour government would repeal the Coalition’s highly controversial NHS legislation.
In terms of hard policy news – how Miliband wants to influence the statute books – the banking provisions and repeal of Coalition NHS laws were really the only standout revelations… but they were pretty major ones. On the whole, though, Miliband at last seemed to shrug off the spectre of the disputed leadership election that saw him claim the top spot over his Blairite and bookies’-favourite sibling, David. There was enough material to suggest that Miliband’s Labour vision is starkly different to that of Tony Blair – despite the former leader’s recent recruitment to the party’s advisory circle – and enough passion in the delivery to indicate that he is less concerned about keeping his own job than he is about taking David Cameron’s.