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.

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Everyone's forgotten the one issue that united the Labour party

There was a time when Ed Miliband spoke at Momentum rallies.

To label the row over the EU at Thursday’s Labour leadership hustings "fireworks" would be to endow it with more beauty than it deserves. Owen Smith’s dogged condemnation of John McDonnell’s absence from a Remain rally – only for Corbyn to point out that his absence was for medical reasons – ought to go down as a cringing new low point in the campaign. 

Not so long ago, we were all friends. In the course of the EU referendum, almost all of the protagonists in the current debacle spoke alongside each other and praised one another’s efforts. At a local level, party activists of all stripes joined forces. Two days before polling day, Momentum activists helped organise an impromptu rally. Ed Miliband was the headline speaker, and was cheered on. 

If you take the simple version of the debate, Labour’s schism on the EU appears as an aberration of the usual dynamics of left and right in the party. Labour's left is supposedly cheering a position which avoids advocating what it believes in (Remain), because it would lose votes. Meanwhile, the right claims to be dying in a ditch for its principles - no matter what the consequences for Labour’s support in Leave-voting heartlands.

Smith wants to oppose Brexit, even after the vote, on the basis of using every available procedural mechanism. He would whip MPs against the invocation of Article 50, refuse to implement it in government, and run on a manifesto of staying in the EU. For the die-hard Europhiles on the left – and I count myself among these, having run the Another Europe is Possible campaign during the referendum – there ought to be no contest as to who to support. On a result that is so damaging to people’s lives and so rooted in prejudice, how could we ever accept that there is such a thing as a "final word"? 

And yet, on the basic principles that lie behind a progressive version of EU membership, such as freedom of movement, Smith seems to contradict himself. Right at the outset of the Labour leadership, Smith took to Newsnight to express his view – typical of many politicians moulded in the era of New Labour – that Labour needed to “listen” to the views Leave voters by simply adopting them, regardless of whether or not they were right. There were, he said, “too many” immigrants in some parts of the country. 

Unlike Smith, Corbyn has not made his post-Brexit policy a headline feature of the campaign, and it is less widely understood. But it is clear, via the five "red lines" outlined by John McDonnell at the end of June:

  1. full access to the single market
  2. membership of the European investment bank
  3. access to trading rights for financial services sector
  4. full residency rights for all EU nationals in the UK and all UK nationals in the EU, and
  5. the enshrinement of EU protections for workers. 

Without these five conditions being met, Labour would presumably not support the invocation of Article 50. So if, as seems likely, a Conservative government would never meet these five conditions, would there be any real difference in how a Corbyn leadership would handle the situation? 

The fight over the legacy of the referendum is theatrical at times. The mutual mistrust last week played out on the stage in front of a mass televised audience. Some Corbyn supporters jeered Smith as he made the case for another referendum. Smith accused Corbyn of not even voting for Remain, and wouldn’t let it go. But, deep down, the division is really about a difference of emphasis. 

It speaks to a deeper truth about the future of Britain in Europe. During the referendum, the establishment case for Remain floundered because it refused to make the case that unemployment and declining public services were the result of austerity, not immigrants. Being spearheaded by Conservatives, it couldn’t. It fell to the left to offer the ideological counter attack that was needed – and we failed to reach enough people. 

As a result, what we got was a popular mandate for petty racism and a potentially long-term shift to the right in British politics, endangering a whole raft of workplace and legal protections along the way. Now that it has happened, anyone who really hopes to overcome either Brexit, or the meaning of Brexit, has to address the core attitudes and debates at their root. Then as now, it is only clear left-wing ideas – free from any attempt to triangulate towards anti-migrant sentiment– that can have any hope of success. 

The real dividing lines in Labour are not about the EU. If they were, the Eurosceptic Frank Field would not be backing Smith. For all that it may be convenient to deny it, Europe was once, briefly, the issue that united the Labour Party. One day, the issues at stake in the referendum may do so again – but only if Labour consolidates itself around a strategy for convincing people of ideas, rather than simply reaching for procedural levers.