I, and I suspect most of the fourth estate, woke up this morning ready to give Ed Miliband’s conference speech a cruel and scathing review. Having watched it I can report to you that it was...pretty good. More surprisingly than that it was good in all the ways that I thought it wouldn’t be. It was warm, well delivered, and his jokes were actually funny. Ed spoke human, and more importantly he spoke it to the country rather than the party.
Gone was the sanctimonious agitprop which has characterised so many of his public appearances. In was chatting about the Olympics in the morning with your workmates (not exactly my favourite hobby, but I understand everyone else loved it). We learned that his desire is to be a ‘One Nation’ Prime Minister, and that he is quite serious about re-inventing the way the British economy works.
He pledged to introduce Glass-Steagall style legislation to separate retail and investment banking, and made the dubious claim that this would mean small businesses would get better access to credit. He also claimed that the practice of forcing companies to publish their accounts every three months encouraged short-termism in British industry, although he stopped short of saying he’d change it. It's hard to imagine any other contemporary leader saying these things.
The speech did include some of the standard conference guff. Saying that the NHS is the embodiment of all that is good in Britain to the Labour conference is the equivalent of Led Zeppelin closing a gig with Stairway to Heaven. Effective, but it hardly challenges the audience. His pledge to repeal the latest NHS Act could prove a hostage to fortune if he has to go through with it. It will mean yet another huge reorganisation, and it does not address the cost problems that I have mentioned before. Demanding to know how many Coalition ministers will benefit from the top rate of tax is an open invitation for his opponents to examine the personal wealth of senior Labour figures. Remember, there aren’t many coal miners in the shadow cabinet.
The real trick that Ed Miliband pulled off with this speech was that he set out a soft left position, and made it sound acceptable to southern middle class voters (like me). For this to count for anything, the positions he has set out must stand up to serious scrutiny. I have already mentioned my doubts about his NHS pledge, and I would add that his new banking legislation would have allowed Lehman Brothers and Northern Rock to behave exactly as they did before the 2008 crash. Glass-Steagall is no panacea. If the rest falls apart this easily, Mr Miliband will be left looking like an idealistic lightweight, not a potential Prime Minister. That said, today was the first time that you could actually imagine him walking in to Number Ten. Politics just got a little bit more interesting.