ED MILIBAND walked onto the stage at the 2013 Labour Party conference wearing a new shirt so white it dazzled. He seemed relaxed and confident as he proceeded to deliver a speech of an hour’s duration with neither notes nor autocue.
He started as he largely went on, with anecdotes of the ordinary people he stresses he represents. We first heard about Ella Phillips whom he helped when she fell off her bike. He explained how she had called him suave and a super-hero, how she had said he was “actually quite attractive” in real life. This was goofy, and not in a good way. My fingernails dug into the palms of my hands.
Miliband seems to have met so many ordinary people, at one point I wondered if he was going to say he also works as a newspaper seller on a street corner. This was before I remembered that hardly anybody buys newspapers anymore.
There was Molly Roberts from Doncaster who asked how he could understand the needs of the people when he wasn’t brought up around there (when he became MP for Doncaster). Then there was a scaffolder who presumably shouted off his scaffolding and asked Miliband where his bodyguard was (answer: he doesn’t have one), which was a clumsy peg for talking about energy companies.
And there was a 17-year-old girl who had written to him about mental health issues. This latter segued into a mention of the NHS and how important – yet ignored – mental health issues were. It was a brave, brave move and a little part of me loved him for it.
It was also one of two parts of the speech it seemed no one was expecting (the other was that 16 and 17-year-olds should get the vote) and stunned the conference hall into hand-twiddling silence. As Miliband rightly said of mental health: “It’s an issue we all like to brush under the carpet”. I found myself wondering who he knew who has a mental health problem but applauding him talking about it.
There should have been more of that and less of what he knows will make good “pull quotes” because what I hate about public speeches is how manipulated I end up feeling. A bit like with music in films that tell you when to feel tense, when to cry. Thus it was that I became really annoyed with the chorus of “We’re Britain, we’re better than that” which was, supposedly, meant to see me air-punching. It didn’t, and Miliband used it at least 12 times too many.
At various points I thought he must have been watching the poet and spoken word artist Hollie McNish as he started riffing, almost rapping. “We’re working for harder for longer for less,” was one such.
He crammed everything into this speech – the only umms and ers came when he made a joke and over-egged it – but it was a bit too ‘tick box’, reminding me of people who send you 20 pictures of their dogs or children, when five hand-picked ones would have made more impact.
All the obvious poll winners were there, but some were rather glossed over. For example, he offered wraparound care for parents of school-aged children with breakfast clubs and after-school clubs, but made absolutely no mention of better and longer maternity packages. He talked about care for the elderly after talking about mental health, but made it sound as if all old people need is a grab rail installed in their house. Considering there are 10 million people over the age of 65 in the UK, all of whom can vote, this seemed a bit of an oversight.
The big question is not whether Miliband can give a good speech – he can, though it was 20 minutes too long – it’s whether he can win an election. More than once, he talked about the 1945 election in which the unassuming Clement Atlee won against the more charismatic Winston Churchill. I wondered if this was Miliband acknowledging that he knows he doesn’t have the political artistry of Blair, or even Cameron, but reassuring us that where it matters, he is headboy material.
Miliband always wears trousers that seem a bit too big for him: too long, too baggy, as if they belong to someone else. And all the way through his speech, I couldn’t help wondering if this was a metaphor for his entire political life. ·
First published in The Week on 24 September 2013.