Leader: How Miliband can seize the initiative this autumn

Much more is required from Labour than defensive social democracy.

Ed Miliband will enter the conference season as the strongest of the three main party leaders. Photograph: Getty Images.

For the first time since he became Labour leader in 2010, Ed Miliband will enter the conference season as the strongest of the three main party leaders. After Labour lost the last election, many predicted that it would collapse into factional warfare, as it has so often in the past. Yet the party has remained largely united and Mr Miliband faces no threats to his leadership. There is much else in his favour. Unlike in the 1980s, when the left was divided between Labour and the Social Democratic Party, left-leaning voters have coalesced around Labour, following the Liberal Democrats’ decision to enter coalition with the Conservatives. The party’s 12-point poll lead will no doubt fall before the next election, but because of Nick Clegg’s decision to veto the Conser­vatives’ proposed constituency boundary changes Mr Mili­band will need a lead of just 1 point on a uniform swing to win a majority.

The assumption that Labour was doomed to a lengthy spell in opposition was always at odds with psephological reality. At the 2010 election, the party may have recorded its second-lowest share of the vote since 1918 (29 per cent) but, owing to the vagaries of the British electoral system, it still emerged with 258 MPs, far more than the Tories had in 1997 (165 MPs), 2001 (166 MPs) and 2005 (198 MPs). For Mr Miliband, the road to a majority is shorter than it was for David Cameron in 2010.

Yet if the Labour leader’s starting position was stronger than many first appreciated, it is also true that he deserves credit for the revival in his party’s fortunes since the beginning of the year. Having recognised before most the appeal of such themes as the “squeezed middle” and “responsible capitalism”, he has been in a position to lead the debate as Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron, who initially mocked him, have sought to claim this territory for themselves. His consistent refusal to imitate the media stunts beloved of Mr Cameron in his early years as Conservative leader, in favour of a more patient strategy, has also strengthened his authority.

Yet there remains a marked disparity between his declaration that the economic consensus of the past 30 years is at an end and his conspicuously modest policy proposals. His supporters’ emphasis on “pre-distribution” – the way the market distributes rewards before the state intervenes – offers one way forward. A living wage, for instance, would reduce the need for large and often inefficient transfers of taxed income by the state. However, as a result of the abandonment of one policy review and the beginning of another, this agenda remains ill-defined.

The reported tensions between Mr Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, offer one explanation for the policy stasis. Mr Balls is sceptical of the former’s call for a new model of capitalism and favours a more liberal approach to bank regulation. It is said he vetoed Mr Miliband’s plan to support a full Glass-Steagall-style separation of retail and investment banking. The shadow chancellor’s dominance of economic policy also leaves the party’s offering to voters defined by the ubiquitous “five-point plan”, with shadow cabinet ministers reluctant to propose anything that may have spending implications. Yet with the UK in a second recession, the plan is no longer adequate to the scale of the task. Labour needs to be bolder, more ambitious.

The failures of the coalition has created an understandable temptation for Labour to turn the next election into a referendum on the government. It is one that Mr Miliband must resist. A position of defensive social democracy may be enough to carry the party over the finishing line with a narrow majority but much more is required if he is to become the consensus-breaking leader he correctly longs to be.