MANCHESTER (Reuters) - Labour leader Ed Miliband cast himself as a humble man of the people on Tuesday in a confident speech, seeking to win over doubters and portray Prime Minister David Cameron as the product of a snobby education who has hurt the economy.
Hoping voters will punish the coalition government for a recession and hand Labour power in an election in 2015, Miliband is grappling with polls which show he is far less popular than his own party and is seen as a worse leader than Cameron.
He used the speech to try to silence muttering within Labour’s own ranks about his geeky image by attacking the government’s economic record in a 65-minute speech without notes that supporters and foes alike said was his best to date.
“They think they are born to rule,” Miliband, dressed in a purple tie, told the party’s annual conference in the northern English city of Manchester.
“Have you ever seen a more incompetent, hopeless, out of touch, U-turning, pledge-breaking, make-it-up-as-you-go-along, back-of-the-envelope, miserable shower?” he asked as his words were drowned out by a standing ovation.
His speech was light on policy specifics, especially on how to deal with Britain’s big budget deficit or how to rescue a recession-hit economy, but is likely to be seen as a crucial thematic staging post in Labour’s struggle to win back voters.
With references to his Jewish immigrant parents and his state school education, the speech was an attempt to rebrand the 42-year-old Oxford-educated son of socialist intellectuals as a more down to earth alternative to Prime Minister Cameron.
Cameron’s government has been haunted by accusations of snobbish elitism, a damaging perception to British voters who are struggling with a contracting economy, government spending cuts and tax increases.
Miliband tried to ditch his image as a distant intellectual by stressing the fact that, unlike Conservative Cameron, he did not attend Britain’s most prestigious fee paying school, Eton. His own state school had taught him “how to look after yourself”, he said.
Cameron last month backed a senior minister accused of calling policemen “plebs”, an old-fashioned insult laden with snobbery, while one rebellious lawmaker has branded Cameron and Chancellor George Osborne as “two posh boys who don’t know the price of milk”.
If Miliband - who was openly mocked by reporters earlier this year when he tried to rebrand his party - can now unite Labour around his leadership, it will add to the pressures on Cameron as he grapples with a divided party and a recession.
Opinion polls show Labour about 10 points ahead of the Conservatives, but one survey on the eve of Miliband’s speech showed that just two out of 10 people believe he has what it takes to be a good prime minister.
His well-received performance at Labour’s highest-profile event may go some way to improving his ratings and calming fears within his own party that it chose the wrong leader to replace former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.
Invoking the ghosts of 19th Century Conservative leader Benjamin Disraeli and Labour post-war Prime Minister Clement Attlee, Miliband called for “one nation” policies that could unite Britain during its worst economic crisis for a generation.
He was cheered when he defended Britain’s National Health Service and when he warned bankers they should stop running their banks as casinos where ordinary people’s savings are used for bets rather than lending to business.
“It was a brilliant speech, it came straight from the heart,” said Michael Sullivan, a 61-year-old retired diver from the Royal Marines who serves as a Labour local councillor.
“He was under pressure today to deliver a speech like that to the doubters in our party and he carried it off: he wanted to create his own image after failing to do that for two years.”
Miliband’s attempt to play the class card may be hard to pull off: though he is the son of Polish Jewish immigrants, his upbringing in the refined intellectual circles of north London was a far cry from the lives of most workers in Britain.
The son of a prominent academic, Miliband - whom the tabloid press has nicknamed “Red Ed” - studied at Oxford and the London School of Economics and has never had a major job outside politics bar a teaching fellowship at Harvard.
Though short on new policies, his attempts to show people a more human side drew praise from even publications that are traditionally pro-Conservative.
“This was perhaps the best speech that Ed Miliband has given, though that is not saying much admittedly, but he came across as a real person, very vivid and compelling and even with a sense of humour,” Fraser Nelson, editor of the Spectator weekly magazine, told Reuters.
“His aim was to convey Ed Miliband as a person: to make people think that he is not just a robotic MP,” Nelson said.
“We didn’t learn much about policy and what there was wasn’t particularly coherent, some of it flatly contradictory, but overall the impression he gave was a very good one.”
Editing by Andrew Osborn