After the tribulations of last year’s conference, few in Ed Miliband’s camp would have dared hope that he would turn up this year as the only major party leader totally secure in his position. For the first time, his main challenge will not be to cut through the chatter about whether he is up to the job or not. As one aide puts it, ‘It’ll feel like his first conference.’ It is certainly his best chance yet to give the country a sense of what he would do as prime minister.
I understand that Miliband has two main aims for the next week. The first is to give people a sense of who he is. He needs to escape from the shadows of his brother and father to craft his own persona. One friend says that Miliband will ‘want to tell a story about his political character’.
The second aim is to give voters a sense of what the big initial reforms of a Miliband government would be. Free of leadership speculation, with his party ten points ahead in the polls and the coalition in choppy waters, Miliband will be being evaluated as a potential prime minister for the first time.
Miliband won’t provide huge amounts of policy detail in Manchester. But I understand that he’ll sketch out plans for energy market reform, a new approach to immigration and how he would apply the contributory principle more to welfare.
With the benefit of hindsight, Miliband’s conference speech last year looks a lot better. The abstract talk of the difference between ‘predatory’ and ‘producer’ capitalism that was so mocked at the time positioned him well for the financial scandals of the 12 months that followed. But for all the perspicacity of that speech, it was poorly delivered. The Labour leader’s team is determined to avoid that happening again. Miliband has been practising. Practising so much, visitors to his home report, that his eldest toddler has taken to declaring: ‘I’m going to give my speech now.’
The new Miliband boys also like to clamber on to the speaker’s lectern in his dining room. But many of those closest to him are arguing that their father shouldn’t feel obliged to stand behind a podium when he delivers his speech in Manchester. Instead, they argue, he should speak without notes. That format is by far his best. But there are those who maintain that Miliband has to do the formal thing if he is to look like an alternative prime minister. This dispute is emblematic of the internal debate over how best to present Miliband to the country. Some of the Labour hierarchy wants to play it safe, to just do the conventional things. But many of those who know Miliband best think that he needs to talk about himself more, to create a personal connection with the voters. They cite the fact that his satisfaction ratings have improved by 31 points this year — while David Cameron’s have dropped by 25 — to make the case that the more the public see of Miliband, the more likely they are to warm to him.
They are also convinced, with justification, that Miliband is not another Gordon Brown; that he would benefit if people got to know his true personality. Strikingly, even Tory Cabinet ministers get on with Miliband on a social level. One remarked to me recently that ‘Ed is one of the nicest people in politics’.
The brutal truth is that the Tories intend to go after Miliband in deeply personal terms. They believe that they can brand him as ‘weird’ in the public mind. They intend to use the fact he ran against his brother and some of his slightly odd mannerisms to make the public see him as simply not Downing Street material. Buoyed by polling that shows Cameron still enjoys a significant lead on prime ministerial qualities, they view the contrast between the two leaders as one of their electoral trump cards.
For this reason alone, Miliband needs to speak more about who he is. Those Labour insiders who complain that ‘there’s too much personal stuff’ in the current draft of the speech miss the point. Miliband needs to try to define himself before the Tories do it for him.
There are things Miliband can say about himself that are not known to most people. He has the classic CV of a modern politician: PPE at Oxford, a special adviser’s job, helped into a safe seat and then fast-tracked to the top. But his background is quite different from David Cameron’s or Nick Clegg’s — or Ed Balls’s, for that matter. Miliband did not go to an elite fee-paying school but to Haverstock Comprehensive in London, from which at the time only a minority proceeded to university.
This, obviously, doesn’t mean that Miliband is some tribune of the people. He inherited a small fortune in property from his Marxist academic father, but he is more attuned to the anti-politics mood than his rivals, and more comfortable in dealing with it. The first event of the Labour conference will be held outside the security bubble and will feature an audience of ordinary Mancunians, invited by the local newspaper, asking the Labour leader questions.
The Miliband camp is convinced that the next election will be focused on living standards. The last election, they argue, was about an economic crisis — but many of the arguments seemed abstract to most of the country. The parties kept debating how quickly to reduce the deficit when only half of voters knew what a deficit was. (Still now, only one in six realise that the national debt is going up.) But in 2015, the economic crisis will be all too palpable. Even Sir Mervyn King, the Bank of England governor, describes it as the longest squeeze in living standards for 80 years.
For all politicians, the biggest challenge will be the electorate’s sense that none of them has the answer. Miliband’s ideas on how to raise living standards are still a work in progress. But talking to those in his circle, I sense that it is an ambitious piece of work. I’m informed that he wants ‘to challenge comfortable Labour views on welfare and immigration, which he regards as probably not sustainable in this new world, and also challenge Tory views on markets’.
However, the test for Miliband next week is more basic than that. By the end of it, he needs people to be able to start imagining him standing on the steps of No. 10. Or to put it another way, he must stop Tory strategists from smiling when they say the words ‘Ed Miliband, Prime Minister’.