English Labour leaders tend to find Scottish party conferences difficult. The Scots tend to be more old-fashioned, unreconstructed and left-wing than their English colleagues which can make it difficult for English party leaders to gauge the mood when they come north.
But Ed Miliband actually managed to get through his address to the Scottish Labour Party conference without any major problems this afternoon, primarily because he managed to adapt his One Nation slogan to fit the independence debate. Miliband has been banging on about One Nation for two years now with few people having any idea what he means. But when he refers to the independence debate, the concept suddenly has meaning – and this is what he concentrated on today.
‘You cannot be a narrow nationalist and stand for social justice,’ he said.
The idea, both of the UK and of One Nation Labour, was about ‘sharing resources and sharing risks’, the Labour leader said, and ‘on that basis we redistribute’.
He equated One Nation with the campaign to keep the Union intact but then went further to insist that staying together would mean fighting for ‘social justice’ for all, across the whole of the UK.
Miliband was careful to press all the appropriate left-wing buttons for his Scottish audience, praising the legacy of John Smith, reaffirming his commitment to restoring the 50p tax rate and attacking SNP plans to reduce corporation tax in an independent Scotland. In a clear nod to the Left in the party in Scotland, he then urged the activists to ‘campaign for fairness and redistribution’. And he added: ‘We have to take on the vested interests to achieve this’.
The Labour Leader was strongest when attacking George Osborne’s Budget – or rather attacking the controversial Conservative advertising which followed the Budget which had described hard-working people as ‘they’. To cheers from the floor, Mr Miliband described the ad as a ‘haughty, out-of-touch misconceived piece of nonsense’. And then he said: ‘The Tories say “they”. We say “us”. Labour: the party of hard-working people’.
There have been times when UK Labour leaders have had to come to Scotland to wrestle with their parties – Tony Blair had to do it most years. On other occasions, party leaders have come to Scotland to bolster their own faltering reputations – Gordon Brown did that, several times. Today Miliband needed to come and bring the party together in the fight for the future of the Union: that was the only thing he had to do.
And while he achieved that in part, mostly he just appeared to be simply going through the motions. He did his usual, walk-about speech, ignoring the podium and the autocue to stride around the stage without notes, calling out ‘friends’ as often as possible and securing applause every time he mentioned a Scottish Labour politician – alive or dead – (but notably not Brown nor Blair).
But, although he said pretty much all the right things, Miliband left with many in the audience with a feeling that he had only half performed. He was on stage for less than 20 minutes in total and said very little that hadn’t been trailed to the media ahead of time yesterday.
In the end, he left the impression that the speech was fine. It was middling. It was ok. It was passable. But it was no more than that.
He got through his experience of addressing the dreaded Scottish Labour conference but his speech was forgettable rather than memorable and, with a referendum to win and a party to galvanise ahead of the next election, he probably needed a bit more than that.
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