Leader: Miliband could win the argument but lose the political battle

The Labour leader has struggled to animate and convince voters.

Maurice Glasman's column in last week's New Statesman, in which he declared that Ed Miliband had "no strategy, no narrative and little energy", prompted an extraor­dinary media response. It did so because the freethinking Labour peer articulated the concerns that many in the party have about Mr Miliband's leadership. In the 15 months since he was elected, Mr Miliband has struggled to animate and convince voters, and his personal ratings have slumped to new lows. A recent YouGov poll found that just 20 per cent think he is doing well as Labour leader, and 66 per cent think he is doing a bad job. His aides are fond of repeating the mantra "This is a marathon, not a sprint", but although the next election is more than three years away, experience shows that once the voters have made up their mind about a leader of the opposition it is very difficult to shift them.

At times, Mr Miliband has been bold, such as in his attack on Rupert Murdoch and News International, his considered response to the English riots and his decision to abolish shadow cabinet elections. But these interventions have been all too rare. When he speaks of himself as a man of "steel and grit", one is reminded of the reply of an old Teamsters union leader in the US who, when asked if his outfit held much power in the transport industry, said: "Being powerful is like being ladylike. If you have to say you are, then you probably ain't."

Where he has been impressive is in recognising before many others the appeal of such themes as the "squeezed middle" and "responsible capitalism". In these straitened times, the question of how to distribute scarce resources is more important than ever. Having initially mocked the Labour leader, both David Cameron and Nick Clegg now speak as he does about the excesses and failures of "crony capitalism".

Mr Miliband's speech on 10 January to London Citizens confirmed that his economic analysis is broadly correct. He argued persuasively that Labour's failure to reform British capitalism left it too reliant on redistribution to achieve fairer outcomes. As he put it: "Sometimes in government it felt like, instead of building a new economy, we were spending money to patch up the failures of the economy we inherited." He believes the state, rather than compensating for unequal wages, should do more to achieve just rewards to begin with. Indeed, the failure of George Osborne's deficit-reduction plan has left Labour with no choice but to rely less on tax and spend to reduce inequality. Judging by Office for Budget Responsibility forecasts, the next government will inherit a deficit of £79bn.

However, while advancing fairness in austere times is a worthy aim, it is far from clear how Mr Miliband intends to fulfil it. He has repeatedly praised the Living Wage Campaign but still refuses to commit to the policy at a national level, citing the "financial implications". Ideas such as forcing energy companies to put elderly customers on their cheapest tariffs and capping rail price increases are commendable, but are hardly likely to bring about the huge shift that he seeks.

More promising is Labour's pledge to accept the full recommendations of the High Pay Commission, including the publication of pay ratios,
employee representation on remuneration committees and simplified pay packages. The issue of executive pay provides Labour with an
opportunity to make common cause with the Business Secretary, Vince Cable, who pursued this agenda outside government and will shortly publish his own detailed proposals.

Aware that Labour can no longer use the proceeds of growth to spend its way to social democracy, Mr Miliband faces hard choices on how to raise revenue and how to use it. He is right to pledge to keep the 50p rate of income tax for those earning more than £150,000 a year, which, contrary
to the expectations of the Lafferite right, looks as if it will raise a significant amount; but he should think much more imaginatively about how to shift the overall tax burden away from income and consumption to wealth, which is even more unequally distributed. So far, it is the Liberal Democrats, in the person of Mr Cable, who have led the way in this defining debate.

After a troubled start to the year, Mr Miliband has shown he will not allow gossip and political machinations to distract him from his ambitious agenda. Yet there are many inside his party who are against him, and the media are largely hostile. Until he finds a way of connecting with voters - of "breaking through", as Lord Glasman put it - Labour might win the intellectual arguments, but lose the long political battle.

This article first appeared in the 16 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The battle for Britain