The final countdown: Ed Miliband's Labour Party Conference speech

Does Labour know there’s a General Election next year? That’s what many have been saying around the conference in Manchester this year. The party has struggled to articulate a coherent set of policies over the last few days and some (many) hoped that the Leader’s speech this afternoon would tie disparate announcements together into a meaningful story.

Well, you would have wanted to be sitting comfortably as Ed Milband spoke for over an hour.  He listed six national goals stressing that that he would seek to achieve them over two terms (a ten year plan). These goals were quite specific and reflected a core vote strategy (low pay, environmental sustainability, financing the health service through a mansion tax, living wages, apprenticeships and housing). A full list is provided below.

However, this week was surely an opportunity for Labour to demonstrate its appeal to a broader swathe of the electorate? Particularly as the outcome of Scottish Referendum has focused minds in Westminster on what the appetite is in the rest of the UK for self-determination. However, the Labour Leadership and their advisers appear to believe that EVEL (English Votes for English Laws) is not an issue that the British – and especially English – electorate is concerned about.

The business community will be relatively relieved. Although there were a number of measures which could be perceived as harmful to business (in particular new taxes on tobacco companies and a further crackdown on closing tax loopholes, with a focus on hedge funds), the measures around apprenticeships, house building, and a strong commitment to remaining in the European Union will be welcomed.

Miliband also took the opportunity to address his leadership style. He positioned himself under the slogan “Together”, arguing that “the ethic of the 21st century is cooperation”. Mr Miliband argued that the Conservative’s record in Government was not just “mediocre” but was “one of the worst ever”. The next 12 months represent his “interview with the British people”, he claimed. Mr Miliband reiterated his commitment to “using the power of Government to stand up to the power of vested interests”. He cited standing up to banks, energy companies, Rupert Murdoch, the Daily Mail, and payday lenders.

Given the fact that Labour is in the lead in the opinion polls and that this is the last Party Conference ahead of May’s General Election, you would have expected to feel a sense of energy and anticipation. The reality has been far from it and the Leader’s speech did not change the vibe. As the Conference comes to an end the military situation in the Middle East is likely to shift focus onto international issues, a vote non-winner for any Opposition Party. Mr Miliband will have to hope that his focus on his ‘core vote’ is enough to win a majority.

Listening in the Conference Hall, FleishmanHillard consultants provide their take on the speech:

“The key outcome of the speech was a strong policy platform, with commitments on housing, low pay and of course the NHs, with specific numbers announced on NHS key staff.

The speech itself was slow to get going, only starting up properly when he talked about the Conservatives. The speech revolved in the main around the Brownite trick of “us vs them”, with the Conservative Government characterised as leaving people “on their own”, vs a Lab Government that would work “together” with people.

You can also see the influence of the Democrat staffers working for Ed – with announcements on LGBT Rights, the low paid, the military, there is a tangible sense of a retail offer to a “progressive” coalition of voters, as for Obama in 2010.

The room was packed out, with hundreds turned away, but there was less seating than usual. The audience was polite, clapping in the right places, but only really getting going when he talked about the NHS – a key touchpoint for Labour members. Otherwise the mood of conference continued with the pervasive sense that the party, and Ed in particular, might be strolling toward defeat in 2015.“

The announcements

Six national goals- Mr Miliband announced six national goals, stressing that this was not just for one term of office, but was a ten year plan:

  1. Low pay: Halving the number of people in low pay by 2025. The National Minimum Wage will rise to £8 by 2020.
  2. Sharing growth: All working people should share fairly in economic growth of country. Miliband promised “good jobs at decent wages”. He also promised reform of the banking sector including “breaking up the big banks”; promised to get power out of Whitehall; and to support the self-employed.
  3. Green economy: By 2025 Britain will be a world leader in the Green economy creating one million new jobs in the process. The Green Investment Bank will be given borrowing powers, all carbon will be taken out of electricity by 2030 and power will be devolved to communities to insulate 5 million homes over the next 10 years.
  4. Apprenticeships and skills: By 2025, as many young people will be going into apprenticeships as currently go to university. Immigration from outside the EU is dependent on apprenticeships “for the next generation” and major government contracts will require companies to offer apprenticeships.
  5.  Housing: By 2025, the number of first time buyers will be doubled with “as many new homes as we need” built. Mr Miliband announced that large developers will not be allowed to sit on land; housing will be the top priority for additional capital investment; and Labour will build a new generation of towns, garden cities and suburbs.
  6. Health and social care: The creation of a “truly world class health and social care service”. Miliband promised 2,000 more nurses, 8,000 more doctors, 5,000 more care workers and 3,000 more midwives.  There would be no further borrowing and this would be funded by a clamp down on tax avoidance (particularly hedge funds where he will remove the intermediary relief from stamp duty); a mansion tax; and a new tax on tobacco companies. Mr Miliband promised the repeal of the Health and Social Care Act.

Political reform- Mr Miliband announced widespread political reform including giving the vote to 16 and 17 year olds; reforming the House of Lords “to make it a senate for the nations and regions”; and offering further devolution to England. Mr Miliband said that constitutional reform had to be driven by a “constitutional convention” driven by “the people” and not imposed by Westminster.

Foreign policy- Mr Miliband said that the UK’s future lies inside not outside the European Union, although he acknowledged that the EU needed reform. He set out a commitment to a two state solution in Israel/Palestine.