Miliband speech verdict: The radicalism is gone, replaced by caution

Ed Miliband is not naturally suited to the job of being opposition leader, but his strengths are under-reported. He's an interesting thinker - certainly the most intellectually rewarding party leader since Tony Blair. He's good at staying calm in the face of frenzied media hostility and at keeping a fractious party together. He's good at challenging received wisdom. And he is very good at conference speeches.

His first speech differentiated him enough from New Labour to earn the right to be heard by Lib Dems horrified by coalition. That Lib Dem support switched and stayed, providing him with a stubborn but pivotal poll lead. His 'predator capitalism' speech seemed remarkably prescient months later and provided a new way of communicating discomfort over private power to the public. His announcement of an energy price freeze dominated the political agenda for months and discombobulated the Tories.

That winning streak ended today. This was a dreadful speech. It had no consistent theme, no big policy and was in places laughable. It was also boring, which is the greatest crime any political speech can commit, especially for an opposition leader on the cusp of an election.

There were flashes of Miliband's originality and radical thinking. The mention of turning the Lords into a senate for nations and the regions was interesting and highlighted a potentially sound way of sidestepping a constitutional trap while still remaining committed to reform. His allusion to a progressive English history - from Cable Street to the International Brigades - suggested he was ready to calm his party's fears of England as power is devolved.

But they were diamonds in the rough. The vast majority of the speech was instantly forgettable.

He tried to wrap it all up in the idea of being 'together' - a riposte to the Scottish nationalist vision expressed much more powerfully over recent weeks on the left. But it is such a big phrase as to avoid clear definition. It is fuzzy and inoffensive. Ultimately it was not interesting enough to sustain him and only a very generous appraisal of his many themes would have suggested they conformed to it.

Miliband has developed a curious habit of name-checking the people he met recently, who all magically seemed to tell him things which corroborate his policies. I presumed none of these people were real, although at one point Miliband highlighted a woman called Elizabeth, who he asked to stand up for applause. It was a very odd moment. He had turned her into a human prop whose sole purpose was to demonstrate the fact she had met him. One man, called Gareth, was singled out repeatedly, in a way that became increasingly ridiculous. Apparently he's real too. He is about to have a very strange day.

The reference to these people is somehow vaudeville, like a pantomime version of human experience. It seemed at once childlike and cynical.

There was an absence of big ideas. After a week of historic political developments, in which the UK stared into the abyss and stepped back, we desperately needed them. Miliband recognised that this was the case and then singularly failed to provide them. There were to be more nurses and less poverty, more sustainable energy and less tax evasion - but nothing to really get the blood pumping.

Has Ed Balls neutered him? It's hard to think of another explanation. Anything interesting has been replaced by Labour tricks of old - gimmicky announcements and a reliance on the NHS. On the evidence of what was presented yesterday, by Balls, and today, by Miliband, it seems the more conservative vision of the shadow chancellor has won.

The eccentric intellectual, who was willing to challenge powers centres which terrified his predecessors, was nowhere to be seen. Instead, we were treated to a tepid procession of minor policy announcements. The crowds spontaneously got up to cheer his stands against Rupert Murdoch and the Daily Mail but he didn't seem to take the hint: they wanted something gutsy and dangerous to inspire them, not a cautious sleepwalk to next May.

In a way, that small, stubborn poll lead of Miliband's may be his biggest problem. If he was trailing, he'd be more willing to throw caution to the wind and embrace a more radical vision. But the lead makes him cautious, while not being substantial enough to make him safe.

It was a sad and dispiriting spectacle. After the events of the last few weeks, and the iniquities of the last five years, the British public deserved better.

Is the Labour party having a nervous breakdown?

The same question is being asked in every room of the Labour conference. It's on everyone's lips, from the speakers on the main stage to the fringe events around the city: what do we do about disengagement?

All the parties were stunned by last week's Scottish referendum vote, but Labour was more stunned than most. It wasn't just that it spelt doom for its election prospects in Scotland, although it did. It was more than that. It was the moment the chickens came home to roost for 20 years of free market policies.

Since Tony Blair took over, the party has by-and-large accepted the Conservative view of public services and the free market. When Alex Salmond repeatedly portrayed Alistair Darling as being in bed with the Tories in their second TV debate, the former Labour chancellor could not even argue back. He was left speechless by his own record in office.

Now Labour has realised the cost of its constant appeals to Middle England: it is no longer the anti-establishment party. In Scotland, the race was close because voters did not trust Labour to protect them from the Tories. If they had done, the 'Yes' campaign would never have come so close to victory.

In every fringe meeting and every shadow minister's speech, that realisation hangs in the air like a mist.

Research published this morning by Ipsos Mori showed barely 20% of young adults identify with a political party. Roughly the same percentage say they are certain to vote. The line is flat. There is no sign of it changing.

If the current trend continues, just 24% of the UK population will feel attached to a particular party by 2024. That compares to 51% in 1983.

We know that it's not disinterest. Scotland showed that. There is strong interest and participation in politics, especially issue-based politics. Just not political parties.

In his speech later Ed Miliband will say:

"Strip away all of the sound and fury and what people across England, Scotland and Wales, across every part of the UK, are saying is this country doesn't care about me. Politics doesn't listen. The economy doesn't work. And they are not wrong. They are right. But this Labour party has a plan to put it right."

Miliband's diagnosis is right. It's always been right. He has a very astute and appropriate sense of what is wrong with this country. But he goes on to offer breadcrumbs: A mansion tax on properties over £2 million, which will bring in a pittance. A windfall tax on tobacco companies. Firms getting government contracts forced to offer apprenticeships. Giving employers control over government spending on training funds. New 'gold standard' vocational qualifications. 'Devolving power' to insulate homes. It is as inspiring as a beige carpet.

Perhaps if the party failed to understand the extent of the problems facing the country, it would be justifiable. But to understand the problem and produce solutions so small is unforgivable. There is nothing here to tempt the young back, to give succour to those who turned their back on the party during New Labour, or to give hope to those who have been impoverished by the coalition.

The irony is that Labour's brand remains largely untainted. Unlike the Tories, it is still considered in just-about-positive terms. Surveys of the young find them to be very critical of welfarism, and yet even here they are far more positive towards Labour than they are towards the Tories. The party has still, just about, won the right to be heard.

But what it has to say is simply not very interesting. It is in a state of shock, as if its very identity has been challenged. It has no answer except the same tired old tinkerings it has engaged in for two decades. The exhaustion of the conference is evident. But underneath it there is a sense of aimless fear.

Where has Labour's fire gone?

The atmosphere in the Labour conference is close to paralysis. The conference centre has all the energy and vigour of an old people's home. Even the applause sounds as if it's coming from the bottom of a well.

It's not entirely their fault. Campaigners, MPs and journalists alike have only just got back from the gruelling, emotional Scotland campaign. They all want to go home. They don't want to be here.

But there's something more fundamental going on as well. Labour feels utterly out of ideas. It is coasting along on gimmicks and mood music.

Ed Balls' speech this morning was full of functionless PR exercises. Ministerial pay will be cut by five per cent and then pegged to deficit reduction. The winter fuel allowance will be cut for the top five per cent of pensioners. Child benefit rises will be capped at one per cent for the first two years of the next parliament.

None of these measures will even chip away at the deficit. They are there to give the impression of fiscal rectitude, but not provide the reality. They are utterly pointless, the aimless fidgeting of a cynical man.

As it happens, I would not support Labour aping the Tories on austerity. But if that's what the party wants to do, then it should actually do it, not engage in the symbolism of doing it. If it wants to take on the markets and create a new type of British economy, which I would be rather more in favour of, they should do that. Instead, the party does nothing, and spends its time unveiling symbols of doing both.

It used to be easy to forgive Ed Miliabnd the blatant gimmickry of policies like an energy price freeze, because you felt they came from a genuine intellectual place. He was reappraising the role of markets in the modern world. He might reach interesting or radical conclusions.

But there can't be excuses anymore. It's months from the election and whether you like Labour's policies or hate them, they are irrelevant. They send a message. They do not actually change anything.

Labour policy on low incomes is to raise poverty wages slightly in six years. On housing it will implement a mansion tax - a pointless and ineffective policy which does nothing to address unfairness. There is no talk of anything concrete, like reforming the regressive council tax bands which make property charges so iniquitous.

Perhaps there will be something substantial in Miliband's final speech, but so far the conference feels dejected, anaemic and lost in a labyrinth of pointless initiatives. This is politics as gameplay.

The bitter irony is that the party has the right diagnosis. Cameron and Osborne are creating a low-paid, vulnerable workforce totally at the mercy of their employers. They are staff, but treated as self-employed. They are on zero-hours contracts. They are paid a pittance.

Employment tribunals have been effectively blocked by the introduction of prohibitive charges.

They are taking two jobs to make ends meet. They are working and in poverty. Even if it wasn't morally intolerable, it would be economically unsustainable. These are workers without the spending power to buy things, living in a consumer economy, increasingly reliant on tax credits and private borrowing.

Labour realises the problem but it does not have the chutzpah or the drive or the ambition to fix it. Instead, a procession of clapped out PR bullet points are trotted out. Voters are fed crisps and told it's a sunday roast.

No wonder everyone seems so tired. There's nothing to get excited about.

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