Ed Miliband delivers a speech at the Policy Network Conference held in the Science Museum yesterday. Photograph: Getty Images.
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On rail policy and more, Labour is leaving space to its left

Miliband has asked radical questions but the answers have been too cautious for some.

Labour's stance on rail, the subject of speculation for months, has now been resolved. As today's Guardian reports, it will allow a public sector comparator to bid for franchises as they expire (seven are up for renewal in the next parliament), but will not pledge to automatically return them to state control. This is in line with the approach outlined by Ed Balls on The Andrew Marr Show last weekend, when he said the public sector should be free to compete with private companies "on a level playing field" but ruled out an "ideological" commitment to state ownership in all cases.

Earlier this year, Andrew Adonis, the shadow infrastructure minister and former transport secretary, similarly told me: "I don’t use the language of renationalisation but of fair competition. My view is that the performance of East Coast [which was renationalised in 2009 after National Express defaulted on its contract] as a state company is sufficiently strong that it would stand a good chance of being able to win future franchises on a fair basis. And, of course, because it doesn’t have to pay dividends, it has a substantial financial advantage."

The party's stance will disappoint those unions and parliamentary candidates who have been pushing for it to commit to bringing expired franchises back into the public sector in a process of incremental renationalisation. They will point to opinion polls showing majority public support for a return to full state ownership and to the success of East Coast as evidence in favour of their position. But Labour, which Ed Miliband has always emphasised will take a "pragmatic" approch, has decided to act on a case-by-case basis (thus limiting the financial risk to the state).

The position is an example of what the Labour leader describes as balancing "radicalism" with "credibility" (a theme explored in my column this week). On this issue, as on others, he has adopted a stance to the left of the Tories, but to the right of the unions and some activists. He has, for instance, pledged to widen use of the living wage, but has ruled out making its payment compulsory, he has promised to end "exploitative" zero-hours contracts, while opposing a full ban, and has committed to reintroducing the 50p tax rate, while vowing not to go any higher.

As Labour resolves its final policy positions, space is more clearly emerging to its left. The Greens, for instance, have used today's rail story to remind voters that they are committed to full renationalisation. They also favour a statutory living wage and a ban on all zero-hour contracts. To the disappointment of the Tories, who have long hoped for the emergence of a "Ukip of the left", the Greens and others have largely proved ineffective at exploiting the territory to Miliband's left. But as the election approaches, it is worth asking how those voters who welcomed the radical questions he asked, but have been disappointed with the answers, will behave.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Inside a shaken city: "I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester”

The morning after the bombing of the Manchester Arena has left the city's residents jumpy.

On Tuesday morning, the streets in Manchester city centre were eerily silent.

The commuter hub of Victoria Station - which backs onto the arena - was closed as police combed the area for clues, and despite Mayor Andy Burnham’s line of "business as usual", it looked like people were staying away.

Manchester Arena is the second largest indoor concert venue in Europe. With a capacity crowd of 18,000, on Monday night the venue was packed with young people from around the country - at least 22 of whom will never come home. At around 10.33pm, a suicide bomber detonated his device near the exit. Among the dead was an eight-year-old girl. Many more victims remain in hospital. 

Those Mancunians who were not alerted by the sirens woke to the news of their city's worst terrorist attack. Still, as the day went on, the city’s hubbub soon returned and, by lunchtime, there were shoppers and workers milling around Exchange Square and the town hall.

Tourists snapped images of the Albert Square building in the sunshine, and some even asked police for photographs like any other day.

But throughout the morning there were rumours and speculation about further incidents - the Arndale Centre was closed for a period after 11.40am while swathes of police descended, shutting off the main city centre thoroughfare of Market Street.

Corporation Street - closed off at Exchange Square - was at the centre of the city’s IRA blast. A postbox which survived the 1996 bombing stood in the foreground while officers stood guard, police tape fluttering around cordoned-off spaces.

It’s true that the streets of Manchester have known horror before, but not like this.

I spoke to students Beth and Melissa who were in the bustling centre when they saw people running from two different directions.

They vanished and ducked into River Island, when an alert came over the tannoy, and a staff member herded them through the back door onto the street.

“There were so many police stood outside the Arndale, it was so frightening,” Melissa told me.

“We thought it will be fine, it’ll be safe after last night. There were police everywhere walking in, and we felt like it would be fine.”

Beth said that they had planned a day of shopping, and weren’t put off by the attack.

“We heard about the arena this morning but we decided to come into the city, we were watching it all these morning, but you can’t let this stop you.”

They remembered the 1996 Arndale bombing, but added: “we were too young to really understand”.

And even now they’re older, they still did not really understand what had happened to the city.

“Theres nowhere to go, where’s safe? I just want to go home,” Melissa said. “I just want to be anywhere that’s not Manchester.”

Manchester has seen this sort of thing before - but so long ago that the stunned city dwellers are at a loss. In a city which feels under siege, no one is quite sure how anyone can keep us safe from an unknown threat

“We saw armed police on the streets - there were loads just then," Melissa said. "I trust them to keep us safe.”

But other observers were less comforted by the sign of firearms.

Ben, who I encountered standing outside an office block on Corporation Street watching the police, was not too forthcoming, except to say “They don’t know what they’re looking for, do they?” as I passed.

The spirit of the city is often invoked, and ahead of a vigil tonight in Albert Square, there will be solidarity and strength from the capital of the North.

But the community values which Mancunians hold dear are shaken to the core by what has happened here.

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