Ed Miliband finds his voice but loses his message

Saturday’s speech mattered, but for a sense of direction you need to look further back.

Ed Miliband's speech to the Fabian Society was instructive. In terms of what was said, it was something of a textual car crash; new liberalism collided with blue socialism, which in turn was shunted into the good society and finally rear-ended the "big society". There may well be a progressive majority willing to embrace civil libertarianism, spurn the legacy of Thatcherism and shun consumerism, but it won't be found in Billingsgate Fish Market.

Since Christmas, Labour's new leader has hit his stride. The way he channelled the media agenda in the run-up to the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election, zeroing in on real doorstep issues like VAT rises and bankers bonuses, was a case study in focused opposition politics. Yes, you can credit his newy formed media team. But they're Ed Miliband's hires and he's the guy standing front of house. The recent plaudits, rightly, are his.

Yet Saturday showed that while Miliband has started to find his voice, he's still struggling to identify his audience. In isolation, the appeal to disillusioned Liberal Democrats resonates. His community organising model is generating interest among activists. There are welcome signs he is preparing to reach out to Labour's lost working class.

But he has not yet managed to find a way of knitting these themes together in one coherent narrative. As an observer said, "It was as if he was reading four different speeches, and he hadn't written any of them." The result is that, in trying to speak to everyone, he risks speaking to no one.

A few weeks ago Miliband released his New Year statement. Amid the tumble of Australian wickets and outcry over the government's decision to let swine flu cut a swath through the population, it passed mostly unnoticed. But according to party sources it's that message that will provide the "template" around which he intends to base his political strategy.

"People knew it wouldn't get much coverage," said an insider, "but Ed's office wanted a reference point. They wanted something they can point to in six months' time and say, 'This is what we said the themes would be and these are the themes that are now cutting through.' "

Those themes are the economy, social mobility and the new politics. Of these, it is the economy that his team has been pushing hard over the past weeks, with tactical success. The team is also beginning to engage with the difficult strategic issues, such as the deficit and, in particular, what they see as the myth of Labour's deficit denial. "It only resonates because it rhymes. We're going to nail it," said a source.

But that clarity and focus also need to be translated into a coherent political vision. On Saturday that vision remained obscure.

On the economy, for example, Miliband's critique of New Labour appeared straightforward enough: "The first part of the way we must change is to show we can build a fair economy, with wealth creation and social justice for all at its heart." Except it was preceded by: "Our period in office was marked by notable successes: record levels of employment, a decade of continuous growth until 2008, low inflation, low interest rates and the minimum wage. What is more, we used the proceeds of growth to both rebuild public services and tackle poverty. Whereas before 1997, relative poverty had trebled and the public realm had crumbled, we comprehensively changed the direction in which our country was headed."

Is Milliband's pitch really going to be that he will save us from the regressive policy agenda that delivered record employment, a decade of growth, slashed inflation, slashed interest rates, introduced the minimum wage, rebuilt public services, tackled actual poverty, tackled relative poverty and began to rebuild the crumbling public realm?

Some supporters believe those who criticise the absence of an agenda do so because they just cannot stomach the one on offer. They point to Saturday as evidence of a clear, moderate, centre-left shift away from Blairite orthodoxy. "People know precisely where Ed's going; it's just that some of them don't like it," said one.

That may be true. But it is also true that some of his messages are being nuanced to the point of obscurity, while others are simply contradictory. If you praise "the New Labour tradition which embraced dynamic markets", your statement "It won't be enough to rely on a deregulated market economy providing the tax revenues for redistribution" is diluted. To say Labour "lost sight of people as individuals, and of the importance of communities", is meaningless. Individuals and communities are not the same, as Thatcherism graphically illustrated.

Ed Miliband has found his voice, but as a result he's trying simultaneously to say too many things to too many people.

He has his template. Now he must use it.

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage