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Three things Ed Miliband’s conference speech must do

—Conference speeches are one of the opposition leader’s few guaranteed media platforms so the temptation for Ed Miliband to fill his with a rerun of every argument and announcement denied a fair hearing must be almost overwhelming. Instead, he must stay ruthlessly focused on the future and do a small number of things really well.

The first is to give a ‘condition of Britain’ analysis, something Miliband has traditionally done better than any other figure of his Labour generation. It is actually pretty clear what kind of country Miliband thinks we live in, one whose people are underpaid, ripped off and subject to the arbitrary power of Fleet Street and the Square Mile. Whether that chimes sufficiently with the kitchen table chats of the voters remains to be seen, but nobody can accuse Labour’s leader of lacking clarity in his account of the nation’s woes.

The second is to offer an ‘organising principle’ for the announcements and activities of the shadow cabinet for the next year. That is what worked so well with his ‘One Nation’ speech in Manchester and what blew up so spectacularly with ‘producers and predators’ in Liverpool. In the former, Miliband armed his team with a political positioning in stark contrast with David Cameron’s government of, and for, the few. In the latter, he exposed the parliamentary Labour party to entirely predictable games of predator bingo where every MP in the country could be asked to divide their local businesses into goodies and baddies. The media’s appetite for such gimmicks is boundless and his team would do well to count the number of times Miliband’s drafts say ‘Afghanistan’, ‘deficit’, ‘immigration’, ‘welfare’ and ‘Ed Balls’. Such Kremlinology and word games have, unfortunately, become the currency of reporters trying to condense serious state of the nation lectures into a page lead and a summary box.

The third, and in many ways most important, thing Miliband needs to do is the one on which he has least form. Conference is his best chance to impose a frame on the government which the whole party can repeat with the same ruthless discipline with which Tories parrot ‘the mess we inherited from Labour’. A good attack narrative needs to be simultaneously true, considered plausible by the media and popular with the punters. The trouble with Labour’s Tory story over the last few years is that it has had the feel of a cut and shut with questions of competence, ideology, consistency, values and personal background all spliced together to make something that is less than the sum of its parts. Last year’s jibe at the ‘incompetent, hopeless, out-of-touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-we-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower’ was good boisterous fun, but did not translate to an argument shadow ministers could prosecute all the way to the general election. This time we need a clear, short, punchy line which can be echoed by every Labour spokesperson in speeches and studios from now until polling day.

The good news for a jittery leader’s team is that conference keynotes are rarely as important in retrospect as the media billing they receive in advance. A few, like Neil Kinnock’s assault on Militant and George Osborne’s inheritance tax gamble, deserve their place as genuinely big moments in modern political history. Still others, like Gordon Brown’s post-Lehman Brothers account of ‘the week the world was spun on its axis’, are important records of how partisan politics and policy development intersected at moments of genuine crisis. But most are stock-taking opportunities, part of the rhythm of political life but rarely the totalising determinant of political fortunes the lobby would have us believe.

As the day draws nearer and the drafts mount up, Miliband will read more and more about how his speech is a make or break moment for his leadership. That media frame will be the making of him. For if there is one thing we now know about Labour’s leader, it is that he never performs better than when he is underestimated, a fact his internal opponents were to learn so painfully at another Labour conference just three short years ago.

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Kirsty McNeill is a former Downing Street adviser and worked on Gordon Brown’s conference speeches in 2008 and 2009 and his addresses to Congress and the European parliament

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Kirsty McNeill

is a former adviser at 10 Downing Street

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