Ed Balls’ speech to Labour conference was sweeping in its scope, taking in equalities, police, the NHS and education, and ending with a passage parading through Labour’s greatest hits. His passage on the post-war Labour government was stirring stuff:
Conference, our predecessors were elected that year to rebuild a country ravaged by conflict.
They faced even greater challenges than we face today: an economy enfeebled by war; a national debt double the size of ours today. And they made tough and unpopular decisions: to continue with rationing; to cut defence spending; and to introduce prescription charges.
But that Labour Cabinet also remained focussed on the long-term task ahead. And they learned from history and rejected the failed austerity of the 1930s.
And that meant they could put in place long-term reforms, enduring achievements, vital to our country’s future: the Beveridge report; new homes for heroes; the school leaving age raised; and, for the first time ever, a National Health Service free to all, based on need not ability to pay – over 60 years later, celebrated in our Olympics opening ceremony for all the world to see, still today the greatest health service in the world.
Balls no longer has leadership ambitions; his defeat in 2010 was enough to dissuade him from running again. But if he did, this would look distinctly like a speech from a leader-in-waiting.
It is worth noting that the man who has overcome a stammer has gone on to be one of Labour’s best orators. There were some stumbles this year, but his tactic of putting applause lines close together and carrying on as it builds (“surfing the applause”, in the jargon), works well, and his passion looks real. Last year, his speech stood out alongside William Hague’s as the best at any of the three party conferences. That is quite a change from the man who used to be terrified even by the thought of having to give a conference speech.