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.