For those diehards watching the Party conference season back in the UK (and a slight dose of a winter virus has left me tied to my NYC abode - no sympathy expected), today it was the turn of Ed Miliband to step up and deliver his keynote address. Reaction has been somewhat muted, ranging from predictable responses from right wing commentators in the blogosphere , and the usual suspects in the Daily Mail and The Daily Telegraph . Further criticism has been forthcoming from what my host, Hal Berstram tells me are equally habitual moaners in The Guardian and the New Statesman.
By common consent, the weakest Political Leaders in the last three decades, (at least excluding the Liberal Democrats) have been Michael Foot, William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith (IDS). For many on the Right, Ed Miliband was the heir to that tradition, and indeed his public persona has been one that has struggled, for me to look Prime Ministerial. I am reminded, by a most unlikely source, that a number of previous Prime Ministers have struggled to gain credibility with the media. Indeed arguably the two 'greatest' post war Prime Ministers (and for Leftists I'll sub the word 'influential' for the latter) would in one instance as Toynbee points out, have been a non -starter (Clement Attlee) and in the other instance the Lady concerned struggled to the extent that she had her own party calling for her head as late as 1977. So the pundits calling this Ed's 'Quiet man' moment can safely I think either be accused of playing to the gallery, at least for the Mail and Telegraph contributors, or in the case of Glover and Hodges, as my man Hal Berstram posits, having an ulterior motive.
Nevertheless, it's worth looking more closely at what Ed's speech contained. For me, he is not a natural orator, and often looks ill at ease, at least in comparison with Blair, or indeed Cameron. As Hal points out, it's possible that Cameron is much more about style than substance, and indeed Ed has done rather better in the set piece exchanges at Prime Minister's Question time than I thought he might have. the worry for Labour Party supporters is that Hague, in particular, regularly trounced Blair across the Dispatch box only to come out with one of the worst electoral performances in history
So to the speech itself, and it started with a couple of somewhat flat jokes. However, for me, more worrying was the lack of content. In comparative terms, the Conservatives first term in opposition was defined by Ken Clarke's comment on Hague's obsession with how he was perceived: 'Where's the beef?' in terms of looking for clear policies with which voters could connect. Reading through the speech, we can come up with the following:
1/ Education - a priority of the Blair years, and it seems Miliband wants to cap the tuition fees at £6K rather than £9K. Furthermore we will see a concerted effort to ensure that people from the lowest achieving and most difficult schools are guaranteed a place at one of the UK's 'Top 30 universities'
2/ Social policy - it seems that Social housing will be allocated in the first instance to people who are working, rather than on the basis of need. How in line with the Human Rights Act this is, I'm not sure, and it seems to sit ill with contending to care for the poorest and most vulnerable.
3/ Health - it seems that Labour will reverse the NHS reforms, because the 'Tories can't be trusted' - in terms of the details, er.... that's it?, unless by the credit card reference he means the nationalisation of the Private Sector - that would be genuinely radical!
4/ The economy - an introduction of employee representatives to decide boardroom renumeration. In fairness, works councils involving employees are a staple of several continental economies - but it's not a tradition the UK has. Also, the differentiation between producers and 'predators' with the former being supported and the latter penalised. Quite who decides what is what is not made clear but it's true this might strike a chord with people who have been the victims of some of the more unscrupulous Private equity forms operating in the murkier sector of the Financial Services industry.
Beyond that, much generalisation about certain values he wishes to embody, but on Europe, an issue for me of the utmost importance, only one sentence, which given how much of our legislation comes from it, is deeply concerning.
So, a train wreck? - not really, indeed for a conference speech, which of late have tended to shy away from concrete commitments precisely for fear of offering hostages to fortune, I thought it wasn't a bad effort. However, as the old saying goes, the Devil is very much in the detail, and I think when he delivers his speech next year, assuming his poll numbers remain steady, I'll expect much more detail of just how a reversion to almost a pre 1979 vision is going to extricate us from the very real issues facing us. Nevertheless, 'the worst speech in 20 years?' - do me a favour!