28 Sep 2010

Ed Miliband: no risks in debut speech

Labour leader Ed Miliband gave “at best half an answer” on what kind of leader he will be in a confident, but safe, debut speech, writes former Labour communications chief Lance Price.

Labour leader Ed Miliband leaves the conference hall after his debut speech.

Ed Miliband made a confident start to his leadership here in Manchester but those who wonder quite what kind of leader he’s going to turn out to be got at best half an answer, former Labour party communications chief Lance Price writes for Channel 4 News.

It will be remembered as the optimism speech, one that offered confidence and faith promises in a better future. For now he has given little detail about how that future would look if he ever became prime minister but there is time for that. He made a lot of use of the “new generation” – too much in my view. Not just because a lot of voters may feel excluded from it but because it suggests he can do without the wisdom of more experienced heads.

He didn’t take many risks in what he said, although it was the first speech from a Labour leader in a very long time to praise “the workers”. He’s no old-fashioned socialist like his Marxist father, but he’ll only shake off the Red Ed tag when he offers a more complete vision of what he actually is.

What Labour got wrong

A lot will be made of the things he says Labour got wrong – his version of David Cameron’s “detoxification” of the Conservative party. Iraq, of course, but also 90-day detention without trail (although, to be fair, Labour MPs stopped Tony Blair introducing that), and the failure to do more to tackle inequality. But he reassured those who supported his brother, David, for the leadership by praising the many things Labour in government got right.

He said Labour “must go on our own journey” to take on the Coalition, and we know he doesn’t mean to use Tony Blair’s book, “A Journey” as his guide. What is less clear is quite where he does want to take the party. But the values he espoused were solid, traditional left-of-centre ideals that he refuses to concede to David Cameron and Nick Clegg. There were sections in the speech that spoke to the holy trinity of Liberty, Equality and Fraternity.

Watch this space

As for the specifics we will just have to “watch this space”. He threatened to tell his party hard truths it might not like to hear, although he never really did. The trade union leaders in the audience looked glum when he condemned “overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes” but that is just what he wanted and needed.

He also criticised as irresponsible the fact that “a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year” without giving any idea what he plans to do about it. He told us that some cuts would be necessary to bring down the deficit but he didn’t tell us which cuts he would support.

It would be unfair to expect a memorable and detailed speech just a matter of days after taking over as leader. And this was a good speech not a great one. It will have whetted many people’s appetite about a young of whom they have no fixed opinions. He told us that he doesn’t like how others have tried to define him – “Red Ed? Come off it!” – but hasn’t given us much definition himself. He has time, but not much, to start doing that.

Read our special report on the Labour leadership contest in full.