Sketch: Miliband treads on Cameron's toes

Without a lectern, Ed Miliband was free to deploy his limbs
Without a lectern, Ed Miliband was free to deploy his limbs
Alex Stevenson By

Gone was gormless Ed. In his place, at the darkest of hours, there appeared unto Labour a new kind of leader: the Southern lay preacher, his soul transmogrified into the body of a wonk.

That this was Ed Miliband's best speech as leader is not in doubt. The tepid but expected praise usually showered upon party leaders - and seen in abundance after Nick Clegg's effort in Brighton last week - was not in evidence in Manchester. Instead Labour's frontbenchers appeared genuinely excited by this effort. It was not a brilliant rhetorical effort, but it managed to get even grizzled veterans excited. That takes something.

The lectern, it turns out, has been stifling Ed. Today he was supported only by two transparent small tables, the sorts of things you might put next to the sink in the bathroom. On a conference stage they looked like obstacles. Miliband didn't unbutton his shirt or take off his jacket. But he did his best to break the shackles of his awkwardness. Even by trying, he seemed more approachable.

Never mind the words - we'll get to those later. The most pressing issue was: what was Miliband going to do with his hands? Whether placing palm to palm as in prayer, or clasping them together slightly above the midriff, or simply stuffing one in a pocket, he seemed to cope with the challenges of the missing lectern just fine. There were deliberate efforts at being informal. He informed the party that his three-year-old son Daniel had suggested jazzing things up with a few "dinosaurs" - but Old Labour's champions were left firmly on the sidelines. He got the audience to chant "no!" about NHS reforms. He talked about chit-chats with his mother and how his father would have liked "the idea of Red Ed" - even, as he hastily pointed out, it wasn't true.

Most of all, it took a certain kind of audaciousness to allude to stage-management issues in a speech which was, despite the lack of a lectern, thoroughly stage-managed. It's like claiming dress-down days at work are more relaxed: they simply introduce another, more complex, set of rules. It's the same with lectern-free speeches. He struck the right balance, too, for there are limits to such formality: you try ending a conversation in the pub with phrases like "That is the spirit this country believes in!" It just won't work.

Overall, though, Miliband seemed to negotiate the minefield. And avoid those transparent tables, too. Rather than using his brain to come up with impenetrable academic speak - "predistribution" was, mercifully, omitted - all that grey matter was solely devoted to memorising the entire speech. No autocues here. And those actually listening to what he had to say - there were some, honest guv - were also pretty impressed.

Labour, languishing in the mire of its ongoing policy review, wasn't really what this speech was about. In its place there came an appeal to a strange, very Labour-ish kind of right-wing politics. This is, after all, the first Labour conference in a while where the predominant colour on stage has been blue. Miliband's obsession with his very secular "faith" - that "I believe we have a duty to leave the world a better place" - was the start of the move on Cameron's centre-right toes. It continued via his embracing of the Conservative prime minister Disraeli's 'one nation' tag and finished with a real bashing of New Labour, which was too "timid" in dealing with the rich.

Not so for Miliband, who has reinvented the idea of forcing people to do things via legislation. Specifically he threatened the banks with reform - otherwise Labour would make 'em. That was typical: Miliband's ends have not changed, and nor have the means, but the sense was that underlining 'one nation' this or that made it very, very centrist.  All of this could have disquieted delegates - "saying that doesn't make me a Conservative", he was forced to insist at one stage - but the Labour faithful were won over by his unexpectedly engaging attacks on the coalition. Miliband has come up with a new kind of list - so different from the over-burdening, sleep-inducing statistics reeled out by Gordon Brown and David Cameron at prime minister's questions. His list was a condemnation of the coalition's omnishambles. Calling the government a "miserable shower", topping this tour de force off, was exactly what the punters wanted.

Miliband can be pleased with himself for delivering a good speech, but it was not a fantastic one. "Producers and predators - I think, one year on, people know what I was talking about," he gloated, appearing for a brief instant insufferably arrogant. If it takes 12 months for people to work out what you were saying, anything can be deemed an improvement. Yet again, Ed Miliband has done enough to keep his party happy. Yet again, he has not yet made a decisive breakthrough.

It doesn't really matter whether 'one nation' turns out to be just another wonkish idea, left to gather dust as the real work of electioneering gathers pace. Or whether Miliband has chosen to ditch the big ideas in place of a positive impact. What matters, today, right now, in this conference hall, was that he notched up a genuine conference hall success. For once, the smiling and waving and standing ovation which greeted his animated conclusion were all wholeheartedly genuine.


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