Ed Miliband’s key message in his first leader’s speech was a simple yet powerful one: a new generation is in charge of the Labour Party and it has a new message of optimism.
With rows of young people behind him and a lectern bearing the slogan “A new generation for change”, Ed Miliband took to the stage to make the most important speech of his relatively short political career.
As the newly elected Labour leader he had to be aware that he was speaking to two distinct audiences: the party members in the hall and the voters outside of it. And he also had to balance his views on Labour’s general election defeat with a positive message, distancing himself from the past but also setting out his stall for the future.
Ed Miliband pitched his lengthy address perfectly in a composed and polished performance from a confident leader.
He began slowly, thanking well wishers and those who had offered him advice. The new leader looked relaxed, throwing in a few joke. There were kind words for his brother too, as Ed described David as “an extraordinary person”. And he also praised his deputy Harriet Harman for her strong contribution as acting party leader.
There was a mention too for those standing down from the front bench. Alastair Darling was thanked for his role as Chancellor and Jack Straw for his many years of service to the party.
The tone then became serious as the speech proper started with Miliband setting out its key themes: a new generation, change and regaining the trust of the country for his party.
He used the story of his parents’ escape from wartime persecution and the welcome they found in Britain to stress his love for his country. Praising their courage, Miliband stressed that his upbringing taught him to fight against injustice and for the values of freedom and opportunity.
After thanking party members for their work in the election, Miliband stressed that the result had been a poor one. His message of humility was strong: the party had lost trust and had to admit to its failings. And as leader he would ensure that the lessons would be learned.
“Labour needs to ensure the coalition is a one-term government. That’s the purpose of my leadership.”
He emphasised that New Labour had achieved change, but by challenging and innovating. There had been successes, he said: the minimum wage, lifting many people out of poverty and improving public services, particularly in health and education. The Labour Party had saved the NHS after years of Tory cuts.
Miliband also touched on the equality agenda, talking of changing attitudes through the introduction of civil partnerships for gay and lesbian couples and the use of all women shortlists to work towards a more representative parliament. There was praise too for the Scottish and Welsh parliaments and for the peace process in Ireland, which he cited as a great achievement by Tony Blair.
Miliband then turned to the failure of Labour as the party lost support. He argued that New Labour had turned from innovator to establishment, losing its radical edge. “I understand,” he said repeatedly, citing issues raised by the public in areas such as immigration and MPs’ expenses where Labour had failed to listen.
The new generation would listen, he pledged. It would be radical and forward thinking, take back the centre ground and work towards an election victory. It would make the economy work for all, value community and family and pursue an ethical foreign policy.
Miliband stressed the need for a new politics, not bound by fear but challenging old thinking to build the economy again. He was clear that a reduction in the deficit was required and that cuts would have been made had Labour won the election. But it had to be done in a way that was fair, promoted growth and at a pace that didn’t threaten economic recovery.
The key pre-requisite for Labour to win the next election was to re-establish its reputation for economic competence, Miliband proclaimed to loud applause. He also called for the bankers who had caused the crisis to pay more while middle class families were protected from its effects. Again this went down well.
Understanding public anger at the economic impact of immigration was important, the new leader argued, stressing that while immigrants had make a great contribution they shouldn’t be exploited in order to drive down wages.
Miliband sought responsibility from trades unions, clearly keen to tackle head on the argument that he is the creature of the unions. While stressing the positive role that the unions have to play in society he also called for restraint. He will have “no truck with overblown rhetoric about waves of irresponsible strikes.” And he committed the party to campaign for a living wage.
He also sought to portray a fairer and more equal society. “What does it say about the values of our society that a banker can earn in a day what the care worker can earn in a year?” he asked, before arguing that fairness and responsibility went together to create a better society.
Benefits reform was required, but not in the manner proposed by the government, he said. Tackling the benefits trap is important, but must not be done purely to scapegoat and to make arbitrary cuts.
Foreign policy caused perhaps the biggest stir with Miliband asserting that the war in Iraq was wrong. There was applause from the hall but also stony glares from several of those who had been in the Cabinet at the time. He called for a line to be drawn under Iraq and for new alliances to be built in efforts for a lasting Middle East peace settlement.
Politics must change, said Miliband. The public has lost trust with politicians and the political process and reform is required. He said he would support the proposed change to the Alterative Vote, and called for an elected House of Lords and a strengthening of local government.
But mostly, politicians must change, he stated. Leadership was required and not focus groups. The public has to be engaged and not talked down to. And government must be responsible, he said, stating that he would not oppose on occasions where the government was right.
Miliband made great play of some of the names he had been called during the leadership campaign, calling for a grown up debate rather than childish name calling.
And he concluded by stating that he relished the opportunity to take on David Cameron. He stressed differences between Cameron’s approach and the optimism of the new generation, likening it to past Labour governments that had built the welfare state and reformed society.
“We are the optimists and together we will change Britain,” were his final words.
This was a carefully crafted and skilful speech. Miliband knows he has to regain support among Labour’s traditional voters, but also needs votes from the middle classes. He got the balance right, concentrating on principles rather than detailed policy announcements.
Ed Miliband skilfully advocated for change, while acknowledging the mistakes of the past. While he does not have the rhetorical flair of some, it was a polished performance that ended on a strong forward looking message.
This wasn’t a left wing speech by any means; rather it was one that sought to regain the centre ground for Labour. He didn’t play political knock about by attacking opponents, but set out his own approach instead.
The new leader knows that the journey back to power for a defeated party can be a long one. This speech was very much a starting point, but it was one in which Ed Miliband set out a new approach and gave hope for the future.
It was a very good beginning to a leadership that promises much.
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