Labour leader’s high-risk speech to his party’s conference made an audacious raid deep into Conservative heritage
Ed Miliband made an audacious raid deep into Conservative heritage in a speech to his party’s conference promising that Labour could rebuild Britain as one nation – a land in which “patriotism, loyalty, dedication to the common cause courses through the veins of all, and nobody feels left out”.
In a high-risk, 65-minute speech in Manchester delivered without notes, and 20 minutes longer than he intended, Miliband tried to take the mantle of the 19th-century Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli‘s one nation, pointedly grabbing the territory and language of the centre ground which he believes David Cameron has foolishly vacated. It could yet be seen as the moment when Miliband transformed himself from a weak opposition leader to a credible potential prime minister.
The Labour leader also tried to shift the centre ground to the left, drawing inspiration from a passage from his party’s 1945 manifesto which claimed that Britain had won the second world war as one nation, and could win the peace the same way.
Miliband spoke, often humorously, without the safety net of speaking cards – a decision he took on holiday, and one which required weeks of memorising.
The address was received rapturously by shadow cabinet members who believe it will both allow him to break through to a deeply sceptical public, and resolve the unanswered question of what follows Old and New Labour.
The praise flowed strongly even from the Blairite wing of the shadow cabinet frustrated in recent months at what they feared was a strategic drift, and an inability of Miliband to help voters understand his true character.
Using the phrase one nation a total of 44 times, and offering himself as a man of faith and duty he argued: “Every time Britain has faced its gravest challenge, we have only come through the storm as one nation. Too often governments have forgotten that lesson. The task now was to come together, to join together and to work together as a country.”
But he also tried to offer a distinctively centre-left version of one nation politics, saying: “I will never accept an economy where the gap between rich and poor just grows wider and wider. In one nation, in my faith, inequality matters. It matters to our country.”
He added: “In one nation responsibility goes all the way to the top of society. The richest in society have the biggest responsibility to the rest of the country.”
Miliband offered little new on policy apart from a commitment to improve corporate governance so businesses are allowed to invest for the long term, and allow established shareholders to protect companies from rapacious takeovers. He also fleshed out his plans to end the elitism that has left those on vocational courses trapped in second class education. The free market experiment in the NHS would be ended, he promised.
But on occasion Miliband did take his party out of its comfort zone saying there was no future in going back to Old Labour. “We must be the party as much of the squeezed middle as those in poverty. There is no future as the party of one sectional interest,” he said.
Equally he warned: “There will be many cuts that this government made that we won’t be able to reverse even though we would like to … in the next parliament we will have tough settlements for the public services and that will make life harder for those who use them and harder for those who work in them.”
In some of the strongest passages, derided as class war by the Conservatives, he claimed Cameron’s record had forfeited the right to be regarded as a one nation prime minister. He accused Cameron of seeking to divide the country, between north and south, public and private, those who can work and those who cannot. He said: “You cannot be a one nation prime minister if your chief whip insults the great police officers of our country by calling them plebs.”
He attacked Cameron’s “millionaires’ budget”, saying next April the prime minister would be writing a cheque for £40,000 to every millionaire in Britain – including, he claimed, the prime minister himself.
Nevertheless he said he recognised why many had at the last election given Cameron “the benefit of the doubt”, but added that the Tories had not brought change, only recession, higher unemployment and higher borrowing. “When David Cameron says to you, ‘well let’s just carry on as we are and wait for the something to turn up’. Don’t believe him. If the medicine is not working, you change the medicine and you change the doctor too.”
He offered insights into his childhood, reflecting on his shock at seeing his mother broken by the news that the anti-apartheid campaigner Ruth First had been murdered. “I was angry. I knew that wasn’t the way the world was meant to be. I knew I had a duty to something about it. It is this upbringing that has made me who I am. A person of faith, not a religious faith, but a faith nonetheless, a faith I believe many religious people would recognise.”
He believed the best way to be true to his faith was through politics, a view he acknowledged was unfashionable. “Millions of people have given up on politics Well I guess you could say I am out to prove them wrong,” he said.