No shortage of ‘friends’ – but Miliband left them hanging

Stoking the fires. Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire

So no rabbit then. But plenty of friends. Probably too many, if truth be told; and maybe too many promises, too. The six-part plan unveiled by Ed Miliband in his Labour conference speech is at least one part too many for most people, I suspect, and is bound to leave the party open to accusations that it’s trying to do too much.

The promises weren’t pie-in-the-sky stuff, but pretty specific – and apparently paid for – but there was little acknowledgement from Miliband that the UK’s dire financial straits will make it difficult enough just to keep things going as they are. Perhaps Ed M thought Ed B had covered that ground the day before in his speech. I’m not so sure. The public needs to know that the chief executive gets it as well as the finance director.

What leapt out, of course, was the power of “together”, a concept continually used by Miliband to counter the Conservative ethos of “you’re on your own”. In some ways, this was standard social democratic fare about the power of government to help people and make a difference in their lives – something Labour will have to restore people’s faith in if it wants another chance to govern.

But he also used the idea of “togetherness” to draw attention to the fact that cooperation and teamwork is a feature of every successful 21st century enterprise, whether public, private or voluntary. That’s a point most people can probably relate to in their lives in and outside work – it doesn’t just imply leftist collectivism.

Playing to the gallery

What also stood out was Miliband’s willingness to pit “working people”, who no longer appear to benefit from British politics, economics and society, against an elite who most definitely do.

For Miliband, the Conservatives are of course to blame for this inequity, and he will be called a populist for saying so. But why should the devil have all the best tunes? And after all, he faces an uphill struggle to convince those same “working people” of Labour’s egalitarian intentions while they still blame the party for swamping the job market with a wave of low-skilled EU migrants.

The country’s right-wing populists, incidentally, provided Miliband with one of his best lines in the form of the quip that “David Cameron does not lie awake at night worrying about the United Kingdom. He lies awake thinking about the United Kingdom Independence Party”.

That line was part of a surprisingly unabashed attempt to pitch Labour as a pro-European outfit – a position which, especially after what felt like a close shave in Scotland, looks like the party’s best bet (and maybe its only hope) for winning over business before the next election.

Whether a Eurosceptic public will be happy with this – and more importantly, whether people will be satisfied with his largely rhetorical acknowledgement of England and Englishness, without making any concessions to the increasingly bellicose Tory cry of “English votes for English Laws” – is another matter.

Scraping by

In truth, there wasn’t much that was counterintuitive or surprising about Miliband’s speech. As far as the hall went, Miliband gave it what it wanted (especially on the NHS) rather than choosing to really tell it like it is. But the general election is just eight months away, and Labour will need plenty of fired-up activists to get out the vote.

Voters care a great deal about the NHS, too. As the financial strains on it begin to show, polling and focus groups are really beginning to pick up on that concern. So perhaps Miliband was doing more than just rallying the crowd in Manchester.

But those voters also care about the economy and in the end, the question will be whether Labour can convince them that the long-awaited uptick in macroeconomic growth isn’t going to improve their lives anywhere near as much as the government claims it will. This argument was there in the speech but maybe not made quite as explicitly or forcefully as many on the left would have liked.

All in all, this was a speech intended to hammer home familiar themes rather than open up new vistas. Performance-wise, it probably wasn’t up to the high standards Miliband has set for himself over the last three years.

Still, it just about did the job; and given the very difficult few days Miliband has had over devolution, that’s (for once) not a way to damn him with faint praise.