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Friday, 30 September 2011

30 September 2011

I know you’ll have been glued to your TV to watch Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour party conference in Liverpool this week. Ah, you weren’t?

Well, you’ll have followed every word of Nick Clegg’s in Birmingham last week, won’t you? Oh, you didn’t.

David Cameron, in Manchester next week? Maybe you’ll have better things to do. Maybe speeches to party conferences don’t matter any more.

Or, there again, maybe they do.

Six years ago, after the Conservative party conference in Blackpool, just as the Tories were about to choose their new leader, I wrote: “A less-than-fiery speech from one Tory leadership contender – and an absolute humdinger of a speech from another one – has changed everything in the leadership stakes.”

The humdinger, you may remember (no notes, striding across the stage as if he owned it), was delivered by a chap called David Cameron. Mind you, I can’t remember a word of what he said … but what lives on is the memory of how he said it.

And if we peer back further into political history, how about these?

Nye Bevan, 1957: voting for unilateral nuclear disarmament “would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber”.

Hugh Gaitskell, 1960, after losing a vote on the same issue, pledging to “fight, fight and fight again to save the party we love”.

Harold Wilson, 1963: talking of the need for “far-reaching changes in economic and social attitudes which permeate our whole system of society” in order to create a “Britain that is going to be forged in the white heat of this revolution …”

Margaret Thatcher, 1980: “You turn if you want to. The lady's not for turning.”

David Steel, 1981: “Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government.”

Neil Kinnock, 1985: attacking the Militant Tendency in Liverpool – “the grotesque chaos of a Labour council – a Labour council – hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.”

Tony Blair, 1996: “Ask me my three main priorities for government, and I tell you: education, education, education.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2002: “Do not under-estimate the determination of a quiet man.”

Iain Duncan Smith, 2003: “The quiet man is here to stay and he's turning up the volume.” (A month later, he was gone.)

I could go on, but I suspect you’d rather I didn’t. The point is simply this: every one of those quotes comes from a speech by a party leader to a party conference, and every one of them – sometimes for better, sometimes for worse – helped to define who they were, and what they were about.

Which brings us to Ed Miliband. According to The Economist, what he delivered on Tuesday was “a strange speech, a defensive speech, a timid speech, a speech that hinted – just for a moment – at all sorts of ambitious and radical ideas, only to turn tail and run away to the comfort of empty, unthreatening phrase-making until it said very little that ordinary voters are likely to notice at all.”

Or, if you prefer, it was, according to Peter Oborne in today’s Daily Telegraph, “an intellectually ambitious and admirable contribution to public debate” in which Mr Miliband “sought to reshape the terms of political argument and so redefine the territory on which the general election will ultimately be fought.”

You pays your money and you takes your choice. What I don’t think you can do is argue that none of it matters. For good or ill, this week’s speech will almost certainly help define Mr Miliband’s place in national political life.

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