One conference speech does not an election victory make, but it can certainly help refocus public perception of the political leader who gives it. So it is this week with Ed Miliband, leader of the British Labour Party at its annual gathering in Brighton. In an impressive unscripted performance he selected one major theme which has since commanded media attention, stimulated political discussion of alternatives, and put him in a better light.
He said the previous vital link between a growing economy and improving family finances has been broken and should be repaired by taxing and regulating the private sector more effectively. As he put it: “They used to say: a rising tide lifts all boats. Now the rising tide just seems to lift yachts.” He highlighted energy prices, promising to freeze them for two years and then regulate them more toughly. He told housing investors to hoard land less and build more. He would increase corporation tax, redistributing the proceeds to small business and require companies to take on more apprentices.
There has been a predictably hostile response from business interests and in much media comment; but the speech went down well with conference delegates, consumers and Labour voters. Analysts discerned a greater confidence in Miliband’s delivery, revealing he is more at home with this message. It is somewhat more left-wing but clearer than before and could put the Conservative-Liberal coalition on the defensive since it shifts the focus from economic recovery to how its fruits are to be distributed.
Conspicuously absent from the speech were references to Britain’s role in the European Union, the independence referendum in Scotland, or party reform, all of them neuralgic issues for the Labour Party. But leadership consists in good part of selecting relevant and emerging themes that can capture public support. Equitably distributing and regulating the fruits of recovery qualifies well on this score. Miliband looks as if he has finally discovered a winnable argument ahead of the 2015 election.