Miliband's ambition is not yet matched by policy

He pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy but struggled to identify solutions.

Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour conference was the most ambitious delivered by a party leader for a generation. Last year he called time on New Labour but this year he called time on the entire neoliberal settlement that has governed the UK since the 1980s."It's all got to change," he cried, reasserting his ambition to do for the left what Thatcher did for the right. Just as she shifted the centre ground of British politics to the right, so he now hopes to pull it leftwards.

He turned his fire on Rupert Murdoch, Fred Goodwin (finally issuing a Labour apology for that knighthood), Southern Cross ("stripping assets for a quick buck") and the energy monopolies, vowing to break up "rigged markets" and, in his favoured phrase, take on "vested interests". No longer would Labour treat all businesses as equally worthy, he said, drawing a sharp distinction between "the producers" and "the predators". "For years as a country we have been neutral in that battle. They've been taxed the same. Regulated the same. Treated the same.Celebrated the same," he told the hall. "They won't be by me."

But while Miliband pinpointed Britain's woes with laser accuracy he struggled to identify solutions. This was a remarkably policy-light speech, with the most memorable policy - a £6,000 cap on tuition fees - one that even he accepts is imperfect. He insisted that "it wouldn't be responsible to make promises I can't keep." But his critics will contend that Miliband still hasn't explained what the point of Labour is when there's no money to spend.

With this in mind, Miliband launched his first sustained attempt to convince voters that they could trust his party with their taxes. He promised that the next Labour government would "only spend what it can afford" and, echoing Ed Balls, conceded that he would not able to reverse many of the coalition's cuts. But he rightly refused to apologise for Labour's alleged "profligacy" and avoided legitimising the myth that overspending, rather than the recession, was to blame for the UK's mammoth deficit.

Whatever the outcome of the next election (and another hung parliament remains a distinct possibility), we can now say with some certainty that Miliband will never form a coalition with Nick Clegg. After Clegg lambasted him as one of Gordon Brown's "backroom boys", Miliband hit back, branding Clegg a "Tory" and mocking him for his broken tuition fees pledge.

But while his attacks on Clegg felt tired and predictable, his speech came to life when he directed his ire at David Cameron. In the most memorable passage of his address, he denounced Cameron's plan "to cut the 50p tax rate for people earning over £3,000 a week" and cried: "How dare they say we're all in it together." It was reminiscent of Cameron's own attack on Labour in 2009 ("how dare Labour lecture the Tories about poverty") and proved that Miliband is at his most effective when he is at his most passionate. Displaying his intellectual heft, Miliband channelled JK Galbraith and denounced the Prime Minister's belief that "you make ordinary families work harder by making them poorer and you make the rich work harder by making them richer."

This was a serious, intellectually coherent and occasionally inspiring speech. But while Miliband has a departure point (neoliberalism) and a destination (social democracy), the route remains unclear. In time, he must identify and then articulate the policies needed to fulfil his tremendous ambition.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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