Comment: A speech that could save Labour

Ed Miliband delivered a speech his brother would never have been able to write. He might just have saved Labour.

By Ian Dunt

You never know how things are going to turn out, but with a bit of luck, Ed Miliband's speech might just represent the start of a golden age in British politics. That's hyperbole, of course, but I have my reasons.

Outside the conference hall, the mood was electric. As delegates and MPs left the speech, you could see something in their eyes, something that said: this might just be doable. Even MPs we know didn't vote for their new leader were careful to tell me that they were impressed, in a way that seemed genuine. There is hope in Labour, for the first time in a long time.

There is something unmistakeably energetic in the response to the speech. The party needs it. This has been a weird, fractious conference. The mood - at its best - was subdued, with many delegates believing the media narrative that they picked the wrong man. This was a story gleefully promoted yesterday during David Miliband's absurdly over-hyped conference speech - basically a mundane version of 'Don't Cry For Me, Argentina'.

At its worst, the mood was far more angry. Several times I was told that the Ed Miliband victory was even more disappointing than the election loss. That says a lot. And not just about the blinded conformity of political opinion in this country - where so many young activists are convinced the centre ground, that hallowed and false location so beloved of pollsters and hacks, is the only place to stand. It also says a lot about Labour, which sometimes seems as if it looks for reasons to eat itself. If the bitterness and infighting breaks out again, especially after this speech, the party must be considered a holding pen for the mentally damaged.

The most important fact about the speech today was that David Miliband could never have delivered it. Today, the former energy and climate change secretary proved why the party was wise to select him. It was all there in the passage on Iraq, during which David Miliband sat, resolutely not clapping, immune to the damage his complicity did to the world, Britain's reputation and trust in Westminster. Ed Miliband was able to deliver that message, and he chose to do it in a way that would not divide the party. He did it respectfully, so much so that even pro-war MPs I spoke to afterwards were visibly relieved they could move on from it. But he said it clearly: "It was wrong." It felt as if the issue was genuinely being laid to rest, that the albatross was gone. David Miliband tried a similar trick, before the election. 'That was last election's issue', he insisted, 'you've punished us enough'. From him, it prompted merely indignation, it sounded flippant. From his brother it was cathartic. That's why Labour elected Ed Miliband.

It elected him because despite his brother's good looks and supposedly prime ministerial manner, it was Ed Miliband who had the politics necessary for Labour to survive as an opposition in 2010. The British public needed a break from New Labour and the younger sibling was the best candidate to offer it to them.

The wise political calculation is to shift to the left, although in a measured way. And make no mistake, this speech did genuinely represent a shift to the left, even if Miliband was at pains to deny it. He is repositioning the party on the centre ground of British politics. It's just that that centre ground has itself shifted leftwards.

The tabloids will attack, especially on the passage questioning our relationship with America. But the public are on board. The public is highly sceptical of the relationship with America and Miliband might just be able to speak over the red-top's heads to get his message through to them. This is an interesting consequence of the deterioration of newspapers' role in British life, one we are about to start seeing more of. The first sign, of course, came when even the Sun's full throttle support failed to get the Tories a majority. Usually, the deterioration of the press is a worrying phenomenon, especially for those of us who actually work in the media. In this case, it is encouraging. Every cloud has a silver lining.

The passage on the unacceptable level of executive salaries - right next to the hard-headed statement on opposing strikes - was masterful. Again, David Miliband could not have delivered it. His heart isn't in it. He's too tainted. Tomorrow's papers will appreciate the fiscal responsibility passage on the deficit, but Ed Miliband did something quite different to what his brother would have done. He actually delivered something solidly left-wing, but he smuggled it in. The reason it was hard to capture was because he explicitly outlined the limits - opposition to strikes and refusing to reject all cuts - while only alluding to the proper meat and potatoes of left-wing thought.

There were flashes of genius here. The passage on immigration was as good a comment on the issue as I have ever heard. During the campaign Ed Miliband described this as a class issue. This is the only perspective upon which to approach it. This issue is about the free-flow of labour to hammer down domestic salaries. The corporate classes' love of free immigration is destroying the arguments of those of us who believe in a compassionate, liberal immigration policy. It is creating the injustice which prompts anger against the system and, with almost Shakespearian unfairness, immigrants themselves. By promising agency worker rights alongside a tougher approach to the issue, Miliband grasped for a responsible and truthful account of an issue which is always in danger of becoming morally and rhetorically unacceptable.

But much of the talk outside the hall was about humanity, a curious designation which is used as a token of success - a sure sign of how far politics has fallen in this country. It is often associated with Ed Miliband. That always confused me. I always thought he acted like a robot brought to life, like a mixture of Frankenstein, Nye Bevan and Bender from Futurama. But today I got it. It's the humility which works, the warm smile and the unassuming manner. He'll be devastating in the leaders' debate. It separates him from the restraint of Nick Clegg or the entitlement of Cameron. Both men should be very, very nervous about what happened here today.

It's very rare you see you a genuinely game-changing speech. Every September we would constantly write about how Gordon Brown, for instance, had to make the speech of his life. Then he'd deliver something acceptable, and we'd all forget about it in a couple of weeks. That's why he eventually started spouting empty promises which were never to be heard of again, like a child making up a story. He knew we'd never remember.

This was different. This was a genuinely new chapter for Labour.

There's been so much talk of 'new politics' recently we start to screen it out. But its use here was important. It was validated by his passage on civil liberties and constitutional reform. Miliband promised to work with other parties where there is agreement and attack where there isn't. This is pivotal. His attacks on the Lib Dems during the leadership campaign were counter-productive because they failed to understand the public's approval of consensual politics, of cooperation, and their hatred for the school boy nonsense that constitutes Westminster debating, especially at PMQs.

Tony Blair may not have liked the Commons or its funny way of speaking, but he encouraged this culture by the use of triangulation. The tactic of repositioning in the enemies' territory and forcing them so far to the right (or left) that they fall into a politically unacceptable position is innately vacuous. It doesn't care about meaning or values.

There was a point, when Cameron first went off with the huskies, when I thought Blair's influence had so corrupted British politics that we would never have the luxury of genuine debate again. Everything would be PR, spin and triangulation, everyone dancing around each other in the centre ground for fear of actually adopting a position. Positions lose voters, so the best policy was assumed to be one which had no position, no actual meaning. Politics, if it took place at all, would happen like wealth redistribution under New Labour - secretly and under cover of darkness.

I grossly underestimated Cameron, who has proved a principled, patient and even wise prime minister, whatever policy disagreements I may have with him. The country as a whole, I think, underestimates Clegg, who has secured the chance at historic constitutional change in an ambitious time-table, no matter what it means for him personally. With Miliband now committed to serious, grown up politics, we might be entering a golden age for Westminster, an age of meaning and conviction.

It won't look like it. This is the time for austerity, for job losses, misery and economic decline. But in our politics, in the way debate takes place, we have three men of genuine principles, who seem to be prepared to engage in conversation.

It's a funny thing, to write a positive column. It's not a habit I can imagine plaguing me too much. But one must be honest about it when it happens. If Ed Miliband lives up to his promise, the standard of politics in this country will be radically improved.

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