Miliband shows steel in taking on Ukip – but will he see it through?

Updated: See below

Could Ed Miliband finally be prepared to take on Ukip? For the whole of this parliament, he has prevaricated. He was seduced by the idea that the historic qualities of right and left had been turned on their head. The right would finally be divided between Tories and Ukip. The left would be united, with Lib Dems moving en masse to Labour.

That's a lovely dream for a Labour leader, so he seemed stubbornly committed to it, even as Labour haemorrhaged votes to Ukip, the Greens and the SNP. Other potential Labour voters opted not to care, on the basis that the party did not really seem to care either. This has culminated in the absurdist spectacle of a strong, hard-working Labour candidate in Rochester and Strood, which was held by Labour until 2010, being ignored by party HQ so that Ukip can give David Cameron a bloody nose.

The extracts of Miliband's big comeback speech include some robust passages on Ukip which suggest he might be about to recognise their threat and summon the courage to take them on. It's worth quoting in full, because it doesn't just indicate where his thinking is with Farage's party, but how far he is willing to defend immigration rather than ape its critics.

"Just as we should apply the values of the British people in the way our country is run, so too on immigration. A sense of fairness and community which means that we can't simply allow wages to be undercut, that entitlements should be earned, and that people should learn English and be part of our society.

"We will be talking more about immigration as a party and we should. But always on the basis of Labour values, not Ukip values. What we will never do is try to out-Ukip, Ukip. I think it is time we levelled with people about Ukip. It is time we had a debate about where they really stand.

"Piece together the different statements from Mr Farage and his gang and think about what it says: 'working mothers aren't worth as much as men; life was better when there wasn't equality for gay and lesbian people; you feel safer when you don't have someone who is foreign living next door; the NHS should be privatised; rights at work, whether they come from Europe or from here, are simply a barrier to economic success. And they say let's get out of the European Union'.

"Their answer is to return to a more unequal, more unjust past. Mr Farage, you go to live in that world if you want to. But I don't think the people of Britain will follow. We're Britain, we’re better than this."

Of course there is the usual caveat about immigration at the start, part of a protective shield of critical policies which Labour candidates can use on the door step. But Miliband shows some verve in recognising the fundamental battle of ideas which Ukip represents: open vs closed. Their world-view is of retreat and closure, of looking inwards. The fact Miliband might be willing to take them on on their own territory, rather than accept their premise and argue that they are not the right people to deliver it, as Cameron has implicitly done, bodes well.

For years people who are comfortable with immigration – and there are millions of them – have wanted a political leader who would be willing to make the case, who would not follow every celebration of immigration with a passage warning that it needed to be stopped. Could we finally have one?

Miliband has proved hard to pin down. When he was fighting for the party leadership he called it "a class issue", which suggested he wanted to formulate a left-wing vocabulary for talking about the winners and losers of globalisation. In his first few years he offered progressive fixes to the injustices of the system, mostly around preventing the undercutting of domestic wages. Then a few weeks ago he panicked completely, had a disastrous PMQs on Cameron's 'failure' on immigration and gave a Ukip-themed speech in Clacton which suggested he was too afraid to challenge their world view.

Now he finally appears willing to recognise Ukip for the threat it is. Whatever electoral advantage it might give him – and that is itself questionable – it pulls British political discourse to the right in the most toxic manner. Where the debate is set by Ukip, no progressive force can succeed. They might be an electoral challenge to the Tories, but they are a spiritual challenge to Labour.

The fight with Ukip has to be about ends, not means. It has to be about the kind of country we want to live in, not how to prioritise what Douglas Carswell appropriately dubbed 'nativism'. And you can't have that debate without making the case for immigration and its benefits to our national economy and national character.

The question is, how long will it last? We no longer hear about 'One Nation', which for a few months was the only phrase Miliband allowed to pass his lips. We don't even hear about 'togetherness', which was the theme of his last conference speech. Not long ago Harriet Harman made an interesting speech on the 'sandwich generation' (terrible phrase, admittedly), focusing on the women who look after the generations above and below them. That was never mentioned again either. Good idea or bad idea, Labour forgets it just the same.

Miliband's problems will not be conquered by a brave fight against Ukip. For some of Labour's core white working class supporters, a defence of an outward-looking Britain would be seen as precisely the metropolitan elitism Farage is so adept at criticising. But it would fire up many of the progressive voters drifting from Labour to the SNP and the Greens and it would end the process by which Labour excludes itself from political contests it ought to be able to win, such as Rochester. It might also give the Labour party the sense of purpose it so desperately needs. Let's hope he sticks with it.

Update 12:10

The speech was pretty good in the end. The Ukip section was well delivered and robust. You can read the full version here.

In terms of style, Miliband is never going to be a charisma juggernaut but he delivered it with passion. He wasn't bad, basically, which is about as good as he's going to get at these things.

In terms of content it was very strong. He has effectively pinpointed the way the modern British economy stacks the odds against ordinary workers. But will he follow through? That remains to be seen. It’s now or never.