Tuesday, 28 September 2010

The conference speech - still the measure of the man

There comes a stage in the conference season, four long weeks from the TUC to the Tories, when you run out of toothpaste, you look at the greying spectre the shaving mirror and think your body has had enough punishment for one year.

Then your realise your task is no more onerous that reporting the most important speech of someone's life, not actually having to make it. Ed Miliband, the address all typed and dusted we're told, has to put in the performance of a lifetime today, no exaggeration.

It is fascinating that even in the short snap attention span of the wifi age, the measure of a politician is a how good they can convey themselves, their ideas and their policies in front of a live audience. A sermon to the congregation is still the most important communication tool the modern politician has to master.

If you wanted to know the difference that 1.3 per cent makes, you should have been in the hall for what felt like David Miliband's swansong yesterday.

Gone was the clumsy, awkward style of the past that was marked down as a weakness while he was a putative challenger to Brown. He spoke unscripted for 20 minutes, reminding Labour and the country what it has now missed out on.

The speech was so well received in the hall that he nearly had the Labour conference cheering for the British Intelligence Service. He didn't quite manage that, but roused them on the rebound with a reference to Oxfam.

He set the bar high but Ed Miliband is the family's great orator, much better than his brother.

And this is the big moment, when he truely does step out of the shadow of his brother David, and introduces himself to Britain. The hall will be behind him, hoping with bated breat that he can prove their collective decision was the right one.

In danger of overshadowing the whole event, in fact the talking point of this strange, subdued week in Manchester, is the Jacob and Esau struggle over the Miliband birthright.

It is just dawning on this conference, in the reflected light of the shaving mirror, the extent and the depth of the family and political schism that has been created by brother setting himself against brother.

The political ramifications have still not been worked through, and they will not end with a great performance this afternoon, or if David Miliband walks away from the shadow cabinet tomorrow, as he may well do.

As Isaac said to Esau, when he lost his birthright to his brother: "yet it shall be that when you are aggrieved, you may cast off his yoke from upon your neck".

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