Even more than Nick Clegg or David Cameron, Ed Miliband leaves a lot riding on this year’s Conference speech. He will go to Brighton facing up to a media narrative – successfully established by the Conservatives – which questions Labour’s economic trustworthiness and Mr Miliband’s leadership credentials. Left unchecked, these questions will pursue him all the way to the election.
The Labour leader last year delivered a confident, personal speech entirely from memory. That performance surprised many but he now may have to do it all over again. His previous speeches might though make us question which Ed Miliband will turn up.
In 2010, Mr Miliband had been leading the party for just 72 hours when he took the podium. As befitted the nature of his election, he delivered a humble speech filled with “painful truths” about the election loss, but with the promise of a “new generation”. A period of soul-searching, followed by a hard earned return to power in 2015 lay ahead.
That tone has evolved, with a more confident and assertive Miliband stressing a fresh start under his leadership. This has included targeted criticism of Labour’s past: he has naturally sought some distance from the Blair and Brown era but also, in 2011, announced that opposition to the right-to-buy initiative in the 1980s was a mistake.
In telling the personal story, Mr Miliband has posed as something of an outsider. In both 2010 and 2012 he dwelt on the story of his parents as immigrants: “I want to tell you who I am”.
Miliband is regularly criticised for being too policy light, but there are some themes that crop up time again in his speeches. He often mentions the party’s support for a minimum and/or Living Wage (2010, 2011, 2012), boosting the status of apprenticeships (2010, 2011, 2012) and tackling soaring utility bills (2011, 2012).
He is also intellectually the boldest of the three Leaders. His 2012 speech, an explicit grab for Disraeli’s “One Nation” policy, reflected a Leader preoccupied with a thorough reworking of the New Labour project.
This was also a significant improvement on the year before, which saw one of the key planks of One Nation (responsible capitalism) presented in a damaging way (“predators and producers”).
Speechwriting and delivery
That experience demonstrated a common challenge for politicians – boiling down complex ideas or even a whole political philosophy into something that will fit in a headline. Sometimes this works better than others; Miliband has moved between the relatively transparent (“the something for nothing culture”) to the clunky and perplexing (“asset strippers”).
This year’s challenge for Mr Miliband is not only to continue to try to strike a chord with voters, but to flex his muscles over the party. Indeed, anything less than a compelling speech delivered passionately and without notes will seem like a regression from last year. In short, he needs to deliver.