Scouring Ed Miliband's Big Speech Audience for Traces of Hope
His Labour Party Conference speech didn't seem particularly convincing.
Ed Miliband has spent four years unconvincingly leading the Labour Party. With the government unpopular and in disarray following the near break up of the country, yesterday was his chance to prove to everyone why he's exactly the sort of person who should be running a nation state. It was his big speech at the Labour Party Conference in Manchester and he was gonna use it to win himself a general election.
'Come on Ed,' his supporters must have thought. 'All you have to do is convince people not to hate you as much as they hate David Cameron. And he's the most hated man in Britain. You can do this.'
Everything was set. Ed came onstage, looking a bit goofy while people clapped him. The usual adoring idealistic teenager was positioned centrally behind him. The racial rainbow was as neatly racked as the balls at a local pool hall. Now all Ed had to do was seize his big moment and mesmerise the crowd with his oratory skills.
I decided to assess the impact of his speech by reading the faces of his Labour comrades.
First up before the cameras were Ed's shadow cabinet colleagues, Dougie Alexander and Yvette Cooper. The pair seemed to be listening intently but, as you can see, looked like they'd just put their dogs down.
As they sat there, grimacing, ruining his big moment, Ed continued to explain about all the people he's met recently who've told him some stuff about their lives.
This has become bogstandard rhetoric for conference speeches. If you meet a politician, and you are a teacher, or you work in a pub kitchen, or you are dying in an NHS hospital bed (like Ed's chum, "Colin"), be very afraid, because everything you say will be chopped up into a soundbyte in which you skilfully pinpoint the darkness at the heart of modern Britain (things like "schools are fucked", "low wages are bad" and "NHS is good/I am dying" respectively).
Of course, if you are a policy wonk, or you run Citibank, or you are a PR consultant or a sommelier at a very good restaurant, or basically most of the sorts of people that top-ranking politicians meet in their actual lives - then you can say what the hell you like to Ed, because there's simply no way he is going to open his speech with: "You know, I fell into conversation with the doorman at Claridge's the other day, and what he said really spoke to me about our nation's story..."
After more intros than an escort agency, Ed eventually cut to the chase - revealing his six-point plan to save Britain.
And this is what it looks like when that happens.
But hold on, what was this miraculous plan? First, Ed said that he would raise the minimum wage to £8 an hour by 2020. That would make it 51p higher than what it would've been if he'd just left it to inflation. In other words, the poorest people in Britain would have £20 a week more to spend. Of course, that twenty quid would itself only be worth £15 by then but whatever, everyone loves money.
Ed was warming up now. He told them he's going to build more houses. And this time - unlike Tony Blair, unlike Gordon Brown, unlike David Cameron - he would actually you know, do it, rather than simply yak on about it before conveniently "parking" the idea in a few months. And like a true socialist, he would use market incentives, rather than actually building them with public money. They lapped this up, the lady above even developing the faint traces of a defiant smile.
Then Ed came to his trump card. The NH-motherfucking-S. Despite recently having spoken to a man who died in their care, Ed remained a fan of the NHS. There would be more nurses, he declared. More midwives. More doctors. More cardiothoracic surgeons. More orderlies pushing plastic trays around. More bureaucrats measuring imaginary targets. More surgical stockings, more sutures, more hospital radio, more green paint on the walls, just more - lots more.
They liked that one. Yes, NHS! That's what makes us. We're not like the French and the Germans, who just leave the invalids to die by the roadside. Great!
This woman had brought her baby along. The little blighter was born in the NHS. Given his newness, it's not unreasonable to assume he could have been the reincarnated soul of the old man who'd died in the NHS after talking to Ed. "Here we go again..." he seems to be thinking.
The epochal symbolism on these gala occasions is often rich. Here, three generations of Labour supporter were on hand to cheer on Ed.
The guy on the left, with his glasses on a rope, probably still remembers Gaitskell losing valiantly to MacMillan in 1959. The guy on the right can recall Michael Foot going down like a plutonium shit sandwich to Mrs T in '83. The spunky young cock of the walk in the middle cried for the first and only time outside of Old Trafford the day Gordon Brown led his two little boys away from Downing Street in 2010. All three seemed cautiously pleased with how things were progressing.
Further back, one of those earnest politics boys who pose bafflingly long questions about bankers' bonuses on Question Time gazed up at Miliband with total absorption. You can't read much into the demeanours of guys like this, he's the sort of lad who has been delivering leaflets round Solihull since he was nine, he'd probably kill if Miliband asked him to.
By this point, the baby was nowhere to be seen. It was probably being led off to the nearest detention centre, because that's what happens to out-groups like babies in Cameron's Britain. But had it been around, it would almost certainly have worn the same expression as the blonde woman above: only-awake-because-needing-a-piss.
Yet Ed's 70-minute speechathon was still only kicking into its second act...
Ed started talking about apprenticeships. They were a Good Thing, he suggested. He wanted more of them. Quite a lot more, actually, because he is very much in favour of increasing the quantity of Good Things in Britain.
Then, to humanise the policy insight, Ed started to run his policy-humanisation algorithm: he tried to think of someone he'd met who was an apprentice so that he could tell a not-terribly-convincing anecdote about them.
Then it struck him: maybe here was a chance for him to rely on more than his own say-so. Like the Derek Acorah of marginal units of labour, he sensed there was an apprentice in the room. He shut his eyes, sniffed the air and uttered the name "Elizabeth..."
"Stand up!" he bade her. She was already on the stage. She rose uncertainly to her feet and everybody looked at this young apprentice with curiosity and bewilderment. It was true what Ed had said. He had met people.
After he was done proving that apprentices exist, Ed started pontificating about the West Lothian Question. This largely involved him saying sentences that would get lost along the way and not quite finish where you imagined they would. It lacked punch; it was as if the judge in your court case had started summing up your conviction for manslaughter, stopped to do a puzzle, and then forgot to sentence you.
But the masses clapped their encouragement still, like the mother of an asthmatic child on sportsday.
On the outer fringes of the shadow cabinet, Hilary Benn and Jim Murphy were doing their best to cheerlead the sound of encouragement into the din of outright euphoria.
As the speech crescendoed, Andy Burnham looked like he was about to well up.
But elsewhere people looked less inspired.
Ed's speech finished. He kissed his wife just to give himself a little reward after all that work. He was a hero!
Or was he?
After all, is what follows a picture of a bunch of people sweetly anticipating the 2015 equivalent of John Prescott dancing on the South Bank to D:Ream?
Or do they look like a Jeremy Kyle audience who've just been told that the love rat's DNA tests have come back positive?
And what does that mean for the future of Britain?
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