IF standing up and delivering a lengthy speech fluently and without notes were all that it took to become Prime Minister, Ed Miliband would be a shoo-in after yesterday’s performance. Modern Britain – and especially the politically engaged minority – has in common with ancient Greece an exaggerated respect for rhetoric, delivery and articulacy. On that basis, Miliband can be awarded full marks; if nothing else, his assured performance will jolt the Tories from their absurd sense of complacency and force them to take the Labour leader seriously.
As to content, the speech was less good, to put it politely. The idea of Labour as the true one nation party would have been promising were it not the oldest cliché in politics. It is a mantle that senior politicians from every party regularly try and claim for themselves. Miliband’s attempt was marred by the many lashings of class war that accompanied the speech. Many, if not most, readers of this newspaper clearly do not belong in Miliband’s one nation economy, especially if they work for hedge funds, banks or earn high incomes.
There was more ill-defined nonsense about predator firms and another vague claim that universal banks would be broken up if certain conditions were not met (needless to say, this would not have prevented Northern Rock, HBOS, Bradford and Bingley or Lehman Brothers’ failure). Miliband is clearly unaware of the vast amount of legislation and reform that has already taken place in the sector, or the European Union’s latest proposals, detailed on the page opposite. His desire to force any firm that wishes to bid for public contracts to take on apprentices is well-meaning but will hurt small businesses.
The leader of the opposition also doesn’t understand how takeovers act as a crucial discipline for boards and helps weed out bad firms, with speculators facilitating the process. Miliband is right about one thing: quarterly reporting can promote short-termism. It should certainly not be compulsory – but why not simply allow shareholders to decide how frequently they want to be kept informed? What does Miliband want to achieve? Turn listed companies into cosy, untouchable, protected bodies? Sadly, the rift between UK business and the Labour party keeps on growing.
Shockingly, Miliband repeated his untrue claim that each millionaire is being given a £40,000 cheque as a result of the looming reduction in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p. This is nonsense, confusing wealth and income: only the 6,000 people earning £1m a year will benefit to that extent, not the 322,000 people with a personal wealth of at least £1m. Even more depressingly, Miliband claimed that “David Cameron isn’t just writing the cheques. He is receiving one. He’s going to be getting the millionaire’s tax cut.” It may well be that the Prime Minister’s total income in his own name is above the £150,000 threshold at which the top rate kicks in. But Miliband’s implicit claim is that he will be better off to the tune of £40,000 implies that he would therefore be on an income of £1m. This is an astonishing claim to make in the absence of any evidence.
Miliband’s vocational education ideas are interesting and need further consideration but he is hardly the only politician to have thought about this. There were few new policies in his speech and little that would boost growth, create jobs or get the UK out of its economic hole. It was a well delivered and politically powerful statement, ideal for rallying the troops at a Labour party conference. But it wasn’t a genuine, realistic agenda for government.