It’s about the economy, stupid

A few years ago, an American sitcom was auditioning its cast. One of the eventual cast members supposedly approached the audition with such gusto that he actually knocked himself unconscious. When he came to, the producers told him he’d got the part.

The lesson: first impressions count.

Yesterday was far from Ed Miliband’s first chance to make an impression, but his keynote speech to the Labour Party conference was billed as an audition for a future Prime Minister. But Mr Miliband, quite literally, fluffed his lines.

Granted, the centrepiece of his speech was Labour’s plans to save the NHS – although plans for a ‘mansion tax’ were quickly criticised by business leaders, while there remain questions both as to whether the monies raised by Labour initiatives will be sufficient to plug what might be a £30bn funding gap in the health service, and more fundamentally whether throwing more money at the NHS (which unlike other government services and departments has had its budget ring-fenced during the last five years) is the way to solve the problem. But failing to acknowledge the deficit was a glaring error, made all the bigger by the announcement today that the government had to borrow £11.6bn in August – failing to slash the budget deficit, putting George Osborne’s spending plans for the year in jeopardy, and setting the scene for an even longer period of austerity.

Despite Mr Miliband’s insistence on the Today Programme that Labour had set out its economic message through Ed Balls’ speech earlier in the week, referencing the deficit in the leader’s speech would have given Labour a much better opportunity to attack the increased government borrowing. Instead, as any political strategist will note, the story today is about Mr Miliband forgetting sections of his speech (something he was unwilling to agree on the Today Programme), while the increase in government borrowing has flown, comparatively, under the radar.

Labour haven’t quite missed an open goal, but they’ve certainly failed to capitalise on an opportunity to challenge the Conservatives and George Osborne ahead of the Conservative Party conference. Media reaction to Mr Miliband’s speech has been largely negative, not only for his failure to mention the deficit and immigration, but also for a lack of detail as to how Labour would achieve its aspirations.

The opinion polls suggest that Labour could win a majority in next year’s General Election, but if Mr Miliband truly expects to deliver on his six point plan he claims will require 10 years in power, Labour need to swiftly provide the ‘how’ to back up ‘what’ they plan to do. And Mr Miliband might also wish to consider changing his public speaking style. The off-the-cuff, without notes delivery has served him well in the past, but yesterday was not one of those times. For someone accused by a number of newspapers this morning of ‘playing it safe’, it was a remarkably risky thing to do this close to a general election.