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Miliband is sneaking up on power without a plan for government

The cosy one-nation revolution Miliband envisages could be a hollow mandate.

If there is such a thing as a good booing, Ed Miliband got one at an anti-austerity rally in London on 20 October. The leader of the opposition was heckled as he told the assembled crowd that a future Labour government would also need to cut budgets.

Jeers are never the soundtrack to a public relations triumph. At least the growls of dissent rebutted Conservative claims that Miliband went to the rally for some thumbsucking evasion of the financial challenge facing the country. Those Labour MPs who had feared that their leader’s appearance at the march would hand a propaganda victory to the government were relieved.

None of Miliband’s antics has intruded much on voters’ attention in recent weeks, since the government has been engaged in the peculiar practice of megaphone ineptitude – amplifying small mistakes into presentational disasters. It was, for example, quite a feat of media mismanagement to stretch an anecdote about the Tory chief whip being rude to a police officer into a month-long saga, culminating in a resignation.

Guitar hero

Miliband has had the freedom to work on his political stance like a wannabe rock star trying out stage moves in the privacy of his bedroom. His statements of intent to contain the deficit are the policy equivalent of air guitar – roughly the right position but not very revealing about what he would do if plugged into instruments of real power.

This leisure bestowed on the opposition is a source of Tory MPs’ fury with David Cameron and the No 10 machine. Most Conservatives are persuaded that a hint of encouraging economic news and a spell of competent administration would cause Labour’s opinion poll lead to shrivel. Many shadow ministers agree. A shudder of alarm passes through the party when official statistics on unemployment or growth hint that sunnier times are coming into view, albeit on a distant horizon.

Ed Balls will continue to argue that the coalition has delayed recovery and inflicted gratuitous pain. There is evidence that voters are sympathetic to that view. Growth, when it does return, is likely to be weak and its benefits will largely accrue to people already fairly well Ed Balls will continue to argue that the coalition has delayed recovery and inflicted gratuitous pain. There is evidence that voters are sympathetic to that view. Growth, when it does return, is likely to be weak and its benefits will largely accrue to people already fairly well off. The squeeze on living standards for those on middle incomes and below will endure. Labour MPs still want reassurance from Miliband and Balls that there is a “fair weather” strategy in case Tory claims to have saved the economy from mortal peril look plausible as an election nears. “If it turns out their policies are actually working, it puts us in some difficulty,” says one shadow minister.

A parallel anxiety is that the Labour leadership’s vague offer of austerity-lite masks a lack of willingness to think about ways to deliver public services on lower budgets. The opposition has to hold the coalition to account for its poorly targeted and hastily implemented cuts. Yet Labour must also beware of implicitly aligning itself with the view that the only problem with public services is their lack of funding.

Awkwardly for Miliband, the playbook of public-sector reform ideas, developed when his party was last in government, is branded with the colours of New Labour and Blairism, which are now deeply unfashionable in the party. There are shadow ministers who whisper that, as long as no great fuss is made, those ideas can be revived under a suitably Milibandite “one nation” banner – but only after an election.

Labour could campaign against the bits of the coalition programme that everyone hates, mainly the squeeze on the NHS, while discreetly acquiescing to more popular policies – welfare and education reform. Academy schools started out, after all, as Labour policy. “We can pretty much pick up where we left off in government,” says one pro-reform frontbencher.

Others are less sanguine. They fear that failure to signal reforming intent – pretending, for example, that the rationing of NHS services is proof of Tory malice towards the health service as if demographic and budget pressures were not also a factor – is dishonest. Voters will smell the deception. Labour could still scrape into power but then hit a wall of public revulsion as misty-eyed promises of change give way to more of the same. It is a scenario that one shadow minister describes as “Labour ending up as the Nick Cleggs of 2015”.

Senior Labour figures cite as a parable the steep fall in popularity of François Hollande since his victory in the French presidential election earlier this year. Hollande stood on an anti-austerity platform, cheered on in Miliband’s office. He is now suffering for want of public money to put where his campaigning mouth had been.

Miliband’s allies have a well-rehearsed response to accusations of deferring difficult decisions. There is a rhythm to a parliament, they say, and an optimal trajectory for opposition movements to rise as incumbent governments falter. In other words, now is not the time for the leader to be boxing himself into rigid policy positions. Holding back an account of what public services would look like under Labour is thus meant to preserve flexibility. It could achieve the opposite effect if it locks the party into defending a romantic vision of the public sector as just a Treasury cheque short of perfection.

Know your enemies

Serial Tory blunders have afforded Labour space to work out what kind of opposition it wants to be. As well as thanking his luck, Miliband should consider why this has happened. It must be tempting to think that Cameron just happens to be congenitally incompetent. Another explanation is that some of the disarray expresses how hard it is to govern in austerity and how easy it is to make powerful enemies of public servants – nurses, teachers, police officers – when taking their money, pensions and job security away.

Miliband imagines doing things differently. His plan involves promising epoch-defining change to the way society and the economy are structured without divisive talk of winners and losers – the cosy one-nation revolution. It is a feasible strategy for sneaking up on power but with a hollow mandate. If Miliband forms a government without permission to inflict pain or make enemies, he will quickly find Britain ungovernable.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 29 October 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Something Rotten