Monday, 26 September 2011

Ed's challenge: to re-engage with the South

Ed Miliband put in a surprisingly confident performance on the Andrew Marr show yesterday. And Ed Balls has said some of the right things in his Shadow Chancellor's speech to the Liverpool conference today. But, it is hard to feel yet that Dave and Sam should be pre-booking the removals van for 2015. By tomorrow afternoon, Ed Miliband should at least ensure that they think they may have to do so. And starting from where Labour is now, it's a pretty tall order.

The mediocre local election results have been followed by modest poll leads since May. At least they are poll leads for Labour, but the image of its key figures is dismal, and people judge a future government on its key personnel as much as on its policies. There are precious few of those too: of course, there is some wisdom in holding fire on policy detail so early in the parliament. The planned cut in the fees cap to £6000 did, at least, generate some headlines, though it may become a millstone around the leadership's neck come the manifesto - inflation may well have lifted it to nearer £7000 by 2015, for a start. The bigger problem is that we have had too little indication yet of Labour's direction of travel under Miliband beyond a wish to ease life for the ill-defined 'squeezed middle'.

Often in politics you have to apologise for something that you didn't do, or believe you didn't do, but which the electorate believes you did, if you are to win their trust to move to the next stage. Ed Miliband has been happy to do this on policies with which he disagreed. But the most important issue relates to Labour and the economy. The party makes a good case that the essentials were in good shape until the economic crisis, but voters still believe that it didn't do enough in the good times to prepare for a rainy day. That is the charge to which Labour must respond effectively. Ed Balls is right that the Government needs to boost growth, though his targeted proposed cut in VAT for home improvements seems more considered than his proposed reversing the latest coalition VAT rise. But his more important message was that Labour would have tough fiscal rules governed by the coalition's Office for Budget Responsibility, and would not reverse coalition cuts. That is a good step in the right direction, but it is unlikely to be enough to cut through the unforgiving attitude of ex-Labour voters who distrust the party on the economy.

Ed Miliband needs to go the extra step on the economy tomorrow. But he also needs to give a sense of what Labour's priorities will be in 2015. The problem with too much of what is being said and done at the moment is that it is backward-looking and retrospective: either trying to refight the issues of Labour in government, or even to respond to internal lobbyists who regretted the unfortunate interlude when the party held power. And best not to mention the anti-immigrant protectionism of Blue Labour. Miliband's front bench has plenty of able people on it of whom we have seen far too little, and the recent Progress Purple Book at least offered some good ideas. But Miliband has also failed to set a clear stamp on the direction of policy and his endless policy reviews need a better steer than they have been given to date if they are not to prove a big embarrassment.

In one sense, tomorrow's speech is a big opportunity. It is a chance to tell ordinary voters that there is a lot more to Ed Miliband than his odd relationship with his brother. Few voters have yet got beyond that in their understanding of him. But it is also a big danger, that it becomes a missed opportunity to define Labour in terms that will regain support among the 'squeezed middle classes' of Southern England and the Midlands: the people of the London and Birmingham suburbs, the coastal towns from Kent to Cornwall, the new towns like Reading, Swindon and Slough across to the West and in Bristol and its environs. If Ed doesn't speak to them tomorrow, his party is simply speaking to itself.

No comments: