Labour's woes mean the bar is being set ever higher for Miliband's conference speech

The pressure is now on Miliband to deliver policies that, as Andy Burnham put it, "knock the others off the pitch".

For the third weekend running, Labour's woes remain the story. In his Sunday Mirror column, John Prescott declares that the party has "massively failed" to get its message across and reminds everyone how it was a different story when he was manning the shop. He writes: "We always planned well ahead with our news grid and during summer I met every day with my team looking at the stories and messages we were going to deliver...I joked with Tony that our poll rating always went up by the time I finished summer watch."

Elsewhere, Maurice Glasman takes to the Mail on Sunday to deliver his mordant judgement on the party's recent performance: "At the very time when Labour should be showing the way ahead, it gives the impression of not knowing which way to turn. When the Labour battle bus should be revving up, it is parked in a lay-by of introspection."

Then there's Caroline Flint in the Observer, who, in response to Miliband's tanking approval ratings, notes that leaders don't need to be popular for their parties to win elections. She's right. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51% approval rating compared to one of 28% for Heath) didn't prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat. But it's not necessarily helpful for shadow cabinet ministers to give the impression of being resigned to Miliband's unpopularity.

At the same time, the increasingly impressive Tory attack machine has swung into action again, with Chris Grayling responding to Miliband's cost of living gambit by declaring that "Labour’s borrowing would add an extra £2,960 in debt to every working family in Britain. The more you dig, the more their rhetoric on the cost of living rings hollow." Grayling's economics might be risible (as Keynes's paradox of thrift proves) but his attack, which will form the centrepiece of a new Tory offensive this week, is a reminder that it won't be enough for Labour to tell voters that they're "worse off" under the Conservatives. They'll also need to convince them that they'd be better off under Labour. So long as the opposition continues to lose the economic argument, that remains a formidable challenge.

One consequence of all of this is that the bar is being raised ever higher for Miliband's conference address. Last year, a no notes speech and a politically dexterous slogan ("one nation") was enough to send the lobby away impressed but this time he'll need to announce policies that, as Andy Burnham put it, "knock the others off the pitch". I'm told that the theme of the speech will be living standards, with energy and housing two of the candidates for big announcements. What is certain is that it will need to be a policy strong enough to shift the narrative back in Labour's favour (as Osborne's inheritance tax pledge in 2007 did for the Tories).

Like David Cameron, Miliband is a leader who performs best when his back is against the wall. But as Labour's summer of discontent continues, the task ahead of him is looking increasingly daunting.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty Images
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What do Labour's lost voters make of the Labour leadership candidates?

What does Newsnight's focus group make of the Labour leadership candidates?

Tonight on Newsnight, an IpsosMori focus group of former Labour voters talks about the four Labour leadership candidates. What did they make of the four candidates?

On Andy Burnham:

“He’s the old guard, with Yvette Cooper”

“It’s the same message they were trying to portray right up to the election”​

“I thought that he acknowledged the fact that they didn’t say sorry during the time of the election, and how can you expect people to vote for you when you’re not actually acknowledging that you were part of the problem”​

“Strongish leader, and at least he’s acknowledging and saying let’s move on from here as opposed to wishy washy”

“I was surprised how long he’d been in politics if he was talking about Tony Blair years – he doesn’t look old enough”

On Jeremy Corbyn:

"“He’s the older guy with the grey hair who’s got all the policies straight out of the sixties and is a bit of a hippy as well is what he comes across as” 

“I agree with most of what he said, I must admit, but I don’t think as a country we can afford his principles”

“He was just going to be the opposite of Conservatives, but there might be policies on the Conservative side that, y’know, might be good policies”

“I’ve heard in the paper he’s the favourite to win the Labour leadership. Well, if that was him, then I won’t be voting for Labour, put it that way”

“I think he’s a very good politician but he’s unelectable as a Prime Minister”

On Yvette Cooper

“She sounds quite positive doesn’t she – for families and their everyday issues”

“Bedroom tax, working tax credits, mainly mum things as well”

“We had Margaret Thatcher obviously years ago, and then I’ve always thought about it being a man, I wanted a man, thinking they were stronger…  she was very strong and decisive as well”

“She was very clear – more so than the other guy [Burnham]”

“I think she’s trying to play down her economics background to sort of distance herself from her husband… I think she’s dumbing herself down”

On Liz Kendall

“None of it came from the heart”

“She just sounds like someone’s told her to say something, it’s not coming from the heart, she needs passion”

“Rather than saying what she’s going to do, she’s attacking”

“She reminded me of a headteacher when she was standing there, and she was quite boring. She just didn’t seem to have any sort of personality, and you can’t imagine her being a leader of a party”

“With Liz Kendall and Andy Burnham there’s a lot of rhetoric but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of direction behind what they’re saying. There seems to be a lot of words but no action.”

And, finally, a piece of advice for all four candidates, should they win the leadership election:

“Get down on your hands and knees and start praying”

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.