Ed Miliband stands with his director of communications Bob Roberts as he waits to give an early morning television interview at the Labour conference in Brighton. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Confident Miliband passes the Today programme test

Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral speeches, the Labour leader has signature policies that he is prepared to defend.

After the conservative press responded to Ed Miliband's pledge to freeze energy prices until 2017 by branding him as a 1970s-style socialist and the energy companies warned of power blackouts, the Labour leader was called for the defence on the Today programme this morning.

To the former charge, he argued persuasively that it was Labour that was "the pro-competition party, the pro-market party" because it wanted "markets to succeed, not fail" by working "in the public interest". To the latter, he said that on "any reasonable scenario", the companies would be able to cope, implying that they were resorting to scare tactics. He conceded, however, that in the event of major price shocks, "companies could make their case to the government."

On the danger of firms hiking prices in advance of the election in order maximise their profits, he replied: "we will make sure that this is a genuine freeze and we will take action to make sure that happens." That implies that Labour would seek to peg prices to their 2014 level were companies to raise prices in 2015. Milband added that the freeze would not be extended beyond 2017 because he expected to have "reformed the energy market" by then.

One important test of a conference speech is whether it can withstand scrutiny the following day and Miliband ably cleared that hurdle this morning. Unlike on previous occasions, when he has struggled to flesh out the meaning of his cerebral addresses, he came armed with signature policies that he was prepared to argue for. He has also adopted a notably softer and more measured speaking style.

By taking on the energy companies, Miliband is confident that he has picked a battle that can only have political benefits. In highlighting threats of blackouts from the sector, Tory MPs have walked straight into his trap by appearing to side with the companies over the consumers. Labour is confident that voters will agree that, in Miliband's words, "the fundamental problem at the heart of the market is that wholesale prices go up and people pay more, and wholesale prices go down and people still pay more."

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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