Comment: Let’s not get too excited about Miliband’s fight-back – this was another awful speech

By James Hutchinson

From the response many seem to have mustered to Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday you could be forgiven for thinking he'd just delivered the Gettysburg Address. 

He deflected the media narrative (politically, job done) but I don't think anyone will be talking about 'the University of London speech' in 150 years. More significantly, it won't make anyone more likely to vote Labour in 2015.

From its self-involved opening joke ("what doesn't kill you makes you stronger" – surely the first time anyone's used a Nietzsche quote to try to get a laugh) to its bizarre phrases ("not to shrink from the fight"), this was a desperately clunky effort.

Miliband had a request to the Labour faithful: "To focus our eyes on the prize of changing this country."

This is dreadful speechwriting. It's not a 'prize' for a start (Ed made it sound like the church tombola); it’s a massive responsibility.

"Focus our eyes" is the kind of phrase you write on your iPhone on the Tube and cringe with embarrassment when you get home. A simple edit would have worked wonders: "We need to focus on changing this country".

Whoever writes for Miliband loves a straw man. The Labour leader is, he assured us, not motivated by "a longing to have a picture on the wall in Downing Street.". Or "I don't shrug my shoulders and say there’s nothing we can do". Who thought you did Ed?

That's not the problem – it's vague, esoteric messages, the lack of concrete policies and dreadful delivery which have been weighing him down.

Trailed extensively to the media in advance was the 'zero zero' nugget:  a challenge to an economy built on zero-hours contracts and corporations paying zero tax.

I see the idea, but it's hardly a phrase that will slip into the public lexicon (it's only fractionally better than 'pre-distribution'). And where was the accompanying detail? A new Labour corporation tax policy? Of course not.

A good test for any piece of communication is if the opposite is nonsense. So a declaration that Ed believes "we need big ideas to change our country" adds no value. Who declares a belief in small ideas?

Marrying vague generalisations with poor style is a recipe for disaster. Miliband shouts when he wants to do passion, points his index finger repeatedly and – bizarrely – closes his eyes for emphasis.

But Miliband is not in trouble because of his style. He’s in trouble because of a paucity of ideas. One extended section of this speech highlighted what people are unhappy about: we work hard but aren’t rewarded, we make a living but can't afford to buy a house, the NHS is under threat.

This is why he wants to be prime minister! A list of complaints!  It's opposition in the most literal sense – like the football fan shouting complaints about the back four from the stands.

I should be fair and point out that there was a passage on solutions – but it was a list of truisms so mind-numbingly obvious I can't even bring myself to repeat them.

The penny still hasn't dropped for Miliband’s team: successful opposition means acting like you are in government. He needs to communicate what he will actually do.

Some commentators have suggested the speech shows Miliband finally taking the fight to Ukip. If he is, I don't think Farage and his team will be trembling in their boots.

A policy almost emerged: "People should learn English and be part of our society." But what that means in practice he didn't say. Will this become law under a Labour government?

Miliband's attack – that Ukip are reactionary, want to get out of Europe, don't really believe in equality and don't like someone foreign living next door – seemed more like a statement of fact than an alternative, progressive vision someone could vote for.

I can imagine many Ukip voters listening to that list and simply saying the words few others ever utter: "I agree with Ed."

James Hutchinson is a former actor and communications expert. You can follow him on Twitter or visit his website.

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