Sketch: Miliband’s new ‘erk’ face

Last year Ed Miliband had a new message to take to the country. This year he has a whole new face.

It's the 'erk' look, in which the leader of the opposition offers an 'uh-oh, shouldn't have done that' expression to signify he's facing a thoroughly awkward moment.

Brits like this. There is nothing more charming than a man who is feeling uncomfortable.

When used in this context the self-effacing ploy – as seen when explaining why the woman he had rescued from a bicycle accident had mistakenly thought he was an "action hero" and "not geeky at all" – is extra effective.

It makes you think more of the erker. He appears more human, which for the leader of a political party is always a good thing.

In this, his fourth (ugh) speech as Labour leader to the party's annual autumn conference, Miliband was trying hard to seem likeable.

He deployed audience participation. He promised not to take his shirt off if he becomes prime minister. He talked about a scaffolder accosting him and asking him "where's your bodyguard?" (that one prompted another erk! look).

Then there was his left hand. On previous occasions it has hung limply by Miliband's side, discarded and redundant.

This time the hand was stuck in his pocket and he looked like a 1950s American model for tailored suits. Very louche.

For the nodders sitting behind him, this was all marvellous. I feared one on the end was so excited she was about to be overcome with adoration for the Dear Leader.

It may prove a different story for voters around the country, who Miliband has made a point of getting to know over the last 12 months.

He rammed that point home by repeating stories about individual people. It was all very off-the-cuff – especially as he was delivering it in the round and without notes.

Not all the scaffolding around this speech had been removed before its grand unveiling, however.

There were several moments when Miliband seemed to get stuck – giving those in the hall that jolting feeling when an actor trips over their lines and instantly recovers, breaking the illusion altogether.

The one line Miliband didn't forget was the tagline of the speech – 'Britain can do better than this!'

Leading politicians like to use these big occasions to introduce new phrases to the Westminster lexicon, but this was rammed down Brighton's throat in a thoroughly overdone manner.

The soundbite itself is robust enough – even if it is not quite as strong as New Labour's famous 1997 campaign theme 'things can only get better'. Miliband's 2013 equivalent can be translated into something a bit weaker – like 'things could probably get better'.

A big address like this has to cover a number of bases and Miliband has broadened his range very well.

Even though Nick Clegg had a good write-up last week he is not so hot at the theatrics of the big occasion. Miliband, by contrast, is getting the hang of this – ranging from the yelping shouting of his conclusion to the sotto voce whispering in which he delivered his trade union reform bit.

The latter did not do much to make him look like a bold and confident leader. While some delegates were straining to hear him, others were developing somewhat blank looks.

The 'erk!' look was being left firmly behind in the second half, as Ed Miliband unveiled a series of big policies – most notably the attention-catching pledge to freeze gas and electricity prices until 2017.

It is an idea which will worry the Tories and set the energy firms off howling with despair.

In the conference hall in Brighton the delegates loved it. They stamped their feet and clapped and cheered, just as they did when he talked about scrapping the bedroom tax or "rescuing" the NHS.

Miliband knows exactly what pushes Labour's buttons. He had enough firepower lined up later on that he could afford to be more relaxed and informal in the filler.

In the battle of the witty one-liners with David Cameron, he will need to summon as much of the firepower and panache he packed into the climactic sections today.

The finger-wagging Miliband is a much more formidable prospect than the 'erk!' alternative.

So while the new self-effacing Ed is a likeable sort of chap, capable of winning over voters on the streets, the 'erk' approach is never going to be enough to get him into Downing Street.