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.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win the Copeland by-election?

Labour face a tricky task in holding onto the seat. 

What’s the Copeland by-election about? That’s the question that will decide who wins it.

The Conservatives want it to be about the nuclear industry, which is the seat’s biggest employer, and Jeremy Corbyn’s long history of opposition to nuclear power.

Labour want it to be about the difficulties of the NHS in Cumbria in general and the future of West Cumberland Hospital in particular.

Who’s winning? Neither party is confident of victory but both sides think it will be close. That Theresa May has visited is a sign of the confidence in Conservative headquarters that, win or lose, Labour will not increase its majority from the six-point lead it held over the Conservatives in May 2015. (It’s always more instructive to talk about vote share rather than raw numbers, in by-elections in particular.)

But her visit may have been counterproductive. Yes, she is the most popular politician in Britain according to all the polls, but in visiting she has added fuel to the fire of Labour’s message that the Conservatives are keeping an anxious eye on the outcome.

Labour strategists feared that “the oxygen” would come out of the campaign if May used her visit to offer a guarantee about West Cumberland Hospital. Instead, she refused to answer, merely hyping up the issue further.

The party is nervous that opposition to Corbyn is going to supress turnout among their voters, but on the Conservative side, there is considerable irritation that May’s visit has made their task harder, too.

Voters know the difference between a by-election and a general election and my hunch is that people will get they can have a free hit on the health question without risking the future of the nuclear factory. That Corbyn has U-Turned on nuclear power only helps.

I said last week that if I knew what the local paper would look like between now and then I would be able to call the outcome. Today the West Cumbria News & Star leads with Downing Street’s refusal to answer questions about West Cumberland Hospital. All the signs favour Labour. 

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