Liverpool has been hit by an unusual double whammy this week: the customary mild bacchanal of a party conference has coincided with the extreme debauch of freshers’ week. And it happens that Labour has a leader who looks as though he might have strayed from one to the other.

For the first two days Ed Miliband maintained what might be called a swot’s posture: sitting bolt upright through a surprising number of speeches of varying quality and appearing to listen attentively. Did he learn anything? Not about oratory. His speech was a clunker.

Let’s deal with the good stuff first. He began with some really nice self-deprecating humour, about his two sons, the new Miliband brothers (“Don’t worry, we’re hoping they become doctors”) and about his nose job (“I had a deviated septum and it needed repositioning. Typical Labour leader. He gets elected and everything moves to the centre.”) And, thanks to what he happily called Ed Nose Day, he does sound much better – no more perpetual catarrh.

Much more importantly, he really is moving the party in some interesting directions, getting away from the uncritical adulation of capitalism that was characteristic of New Labour and offering a critique of business excesses that could have both political and intellectual resonance. It would be simplistic to call it left-wing. His talk of “a quiet crisis” afflicting “the hard-working majority” is a fine summation of the collapse of optimism now bedevilling Britain.

Early on, it looked as though he might go somewhere with this and turn himself into a consumers’ champion, but in the end he just fired off some lazy applause lines at the obvious targets – Rupert Murdoch, Southern Cross, the energy companies and Sir Fred Goodwin – and moved on. And he really didn’t have much else to say. All his best lines had been leaked in advance, leaving him no surprises up his sleeve, which seems a very curious tactic.

Viewers at home missed about five minutes of his speech when the live feed went down soon after the opening jokes. Well, lucky old them. I hope they took the chance to go and do some autumn gardening jobs instead because the speech went rapidly downhill.

Maybe Mr Miliband has used freshers’ week to sign up for the Union and taken a course in the use of rhetorical devices: everything from anadiplosis to zeugma. Everything was completely overblown, most particular the quest for short and punchy sentences, which have their place, but preferably in short and punchy speeches. After a while, it sounded as though he was reciting blank verse, possibly translated from the Japanese.

My parents fled the Nazis.
And came to Britain.

They embraced its values.


Who built a life for us.

So this is who I am.

And later:

No wonder people are angry
It’s my job

My party’s mission

To say: no more.

It’s all got to change.

We need a new bargain.

Based on Britain’s values.

To sum up:

This kind of speech
Is an indication

That a politician

Thinks his audience

Are idiots.

It was torture to listen to. Unworthy of a thoughtful and intelligent man. Once or twice, he really did seem to connect with conference. They liked it when he said “I am not Tony Blair” and they went berserk after he neared his peroration and offered another of his cod-haikus:

Let me tell David Cameron this.
It’s the oldest truth in politics.

He knows it

And now the public know it too.

You can’t trust the Tories with the National Health Service.

The audience got to their feet and applauded rapturously. Perhaps they thought it was the end of the speech: perhaps the wish was father to that thought.

Get alerts on Ed Miliband when a new story is published

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2019. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window)

Follow the topics in this article