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John Glen MP: Rhetoric vs Reality, or why Miliband’s speech will be forgotten

John GlenJohn Glen is the Member of Parliament for Salisbury. Follow John on Twitter.

In some of this morning’s media’s headlines there is praise for the Labour leader’s conference performance. The 65 minute speech without notes seems to have neutered those in the Blairite ranks who, a few days ago, were talking up the prospects of David Miliband; who they felt, in the end, would replace his unelectable “crash and burn” younger brother.

However, when we move beyond the impressive memory skills and the slogans, where did Ed’s speech really take the Labour party? My assessment is simple – not very far.

To be a credible alternative Prime Minister, Miliband will need to convincingly address three issues — and, on each one, yesterday’s speech did little to provide a substantive answer, or even a hint of where the substance will come from.

1) The weirdo factor. Ed Miliband’s personal rating is very low. Despite all the difficult decisions the government is taking, people remain lack confidence enough in Ed Miliband’s leadership qualities to rate him as an alternative Prime Minister. Yesterday’s speech won’t change that. 

Leadership is about character and judgement – with no clear narrative other than stolen One Nation rhetoric, he will leave the public thinking that he is an opportunist but not somebody with the calibre to be running the government in tough times. With Milliband unwilling to break with the unions and denounce the economic incompetence of the previous government, the country will still be disinclined to vote for him as Prime Minister. Ratings do change, but his core branding as a policy geek who stabbed his brother in the back will not be erased unless replaced with substance.

2) No credible economic narrative. Miliband is quick to find flamboyant turns of phrase to criticise the government’s economic strategy but simply saying “it isn’t working ...we need to change medicine” is the political equivalent of a McDonalds happy meal – it leaves you satisfied for a few moments but then you are quickly seeking some proper food .

Miliband didn’t, and he won’t, apologise for 10 years of bloated spending; he will promise a review of public spending but only after the election. He is happy to continue the rhetoric deriding cuts that are ‘too far and too fast’ but still has no credible alternative plan for keeping the confidence of markets as well as much needed low interest rates. People will still want to know how you pay off debts by spending more. Fanciful speculative spending in the hope it will magic up growth does not cut it when confidence is low.

3) No vision for public services. On the key areas of education and health Miliband is again heavy on political rhetoric but cannot untie himself from a legacy of spending without reform. Recent years have underscored in the public’s mind the need to have value for money and tangible outcomes – e.g. improved educational qualifications for school leavers and locally-responsive healthcare commissioning. The argument of recent elections that "Labour = more money = better public services" won’t hold water at the next election. 

Labour’s rhetorical demonisation of the freedoms the current government is giving to local communities, locally based clinical commissioning groups, tparents, head teachers and councils — by misrepresenting it with the lazy 80’s label of privatisation — will not resonate in these areas of public service. The public want power, not Labour’s heavy hand extended from Ed Balls desk in No.11 (God forbid!).

With no credible alternative vision of reform forthcoming — merely imprecise hints of more money, speciously justified by calling every increase in spending “investment”, and a promissory note that they will deal with deficit reduction after the election — Labour continue to lack credibility.

We are halfway through one of the toughest periods any government has faced for 60 years. As a Conservative I wish we could go further in some areas and, yes, I think we have challenges with the economy which will dominate the agenda for the remainder of the Parliament. But a deep legacy of Labour's economic mismanagement cannot be smoothed over with a few unscripted populist phrases from a Conference platform. Sustained economic growth will be driven by increased confidence in the fundamentals of the government’s policies to tackle the deficit, by a determined willingness to reform public services, as well as by character under pressure.

Ed’s speech may have been an unexpected performance but it offers nothing in terms of defining a credible alternative agenda for government.


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