Ed Miliband has spent the past few months celebrating the success of his conference pledge to freeze energy prices. He was so pleased with the disruption that this caused that he referenced it in his speech on banking reform today.
He is right to be pleased with that pledge. It was a hit. It’s just that today’s speech, built up by the Miliband camp as the sequel to the price freeze, was the political equivalent of a difficult second album.
You could see what he was trying to do. Sections of the speech were straight from the Obama playbook, just as his conference speech was, with appeals such as ‘Britain can do better than this’ and lines such as ‘we believe we can tip the balance away from struggle and towards hope’. But the playbook lines weren’t played very well.
Once he’d finished the speech, he immediately relaxed and performed far better in the question-and-answer session that followed. But the speech itself, delivered in Miliband’s most engaging format of no notes, had a rather too plaintive and pessimistic tone. It had a long lead-in to the main point, and meandered around Miliband pointing at things that he found expensive or annoying, and telling the audience that he was the first to spot how bad things were:
‘For too long politicians acted as if when something wasn’t talked about in politics or wasn’t big on our television screens, somehow it wasn’t happening. The banking crisis. The problems in the eurozone. Ups and downs on the stock market. They are the daily stuff of politics.
‘But all the while something just as important, something even deeper, has been going on. And we have been far too silent about it. That is the cost-of-living crisis.’
There were also bits where you could see the point Miliband was trying to make it, but the way he made it was rather clunky:
‘All the other fragments of what people are saying to me, saying what are my kids going to do when they grow up?’
He was trying to paint a picture of families fearful about the future, but instead he sounded a bit like he was telling a story about the time he was mistaken for a fortune teller at the school fete. Anyway, based on this speech, Miliband’s response would have been ‘sorry, mate, I’m just here to point at the expensive things, not predict the future’.
As for the substance of the speech, perhaps it is significant that his reminder to the audience that Labour would scrap the bedroom tax got a bigger cheer than the central new announcement on banking. Miliband did have a very good line indeed on the purpose of the banks under Labour: ‘Under a Labour government, you will no longer be serving the banks. The banks will be serving you.’ And his assessment of the banking sector has having ‘too much power concentrated in too few hands’ is also one that will appeal to voters. He also moved beyond just making an assessment of the problem to some detailed proposals, such as examining in detail how to create at least two ‘sizeable and competitive’ banks to act as ‘challengers’, and capping existing banks’ share of personal accounts. And he did engage with Mark Carney’s analysis of his proposals in the Q&A too.
But will this have as much purchase as that energy price freeze? A sense that Labour wants to do something about the unpopular bankers is obviously a populist move. But already this morning Labour has been trying to square a possible hit on state-owned banks’ share price with its language about long-time reform. And the speech did not contain any more analysis of where the previous Labour government went wrong on banking than the following:
‘Of course, financial services is an important industry in itself. But for an industry that calls itself a “service”, it has been a poor servant of the real economy. And it has been an incredibly poor servant. Not just since 2010. Or 2008. But for decades in this country. We need a reckoning with our banking system not for retribution but for reform.’
We already know that Miliband has identified a problem that worries hardworking families up and down the country. The question is whether today’s speech will identify him as the man who has the solution too. I’m not convinced it did. ‘Britain can do better than this,’ he said repeatedly. Ed could do a better speech than this too.
More Spectator for less. Stay informed leading up to the EU referendum and in the aftermath. Subscribe and receive 15 issues delivered for just £15, with full web and app access. Join us.