Ed Miliband has just had his first TV interview as leader on The Andrew Marr Show and, despite some fairly fierce questioning over the unions, he kept his cool. “I’m nobody’s man, I’m my own man,” he said, slapping down Bob Crow for good measure.
Labour’s new leader pointed out, as I suggested he do yesterday, that it was not the union barons who elected him but thousands of “ordinary working people”. And, highlighting a strength of Labour’s electoral college, he noted: “More people voted for me than voted for David Cameron in his election.”
If there was a weakness, it was that Marr’s direct questioning left Miliband with little time to go on the offensive over the coalition’s cuts. But he began to find his feet towards the end, pointing out, in a neat phrase, that the coalition has promised to almost “double the cuts”.
But a jarring moment came when Milband, having conceded that he would not “oppose every cut”, was asked to propose some of his own. Answer came there none. Even Diane Abbott had Trident. His claim that he’d “wait and see” what the coalition proposed was distinctly unsatisfying.
On the deficit, he described the Brown/Darling plan as a “starting point”, leaving himself plenty of wriggle room ahead of the spending review on 20 October. For now, it’s clear that he believes in a more even split between spending cuts and tax rises than that promised by George Osborne or Alistair Darling (the former currently envisages a 77:23 ratio, the latter favoured 67:33). After all, during the last big fiscal tightening undertaken by a Conservative government, Kenneth Clarke split the pain 50:50.
But Miliband’s defence of a universal welfare state could yet prove a far more important dividing line with the coalition. While he believes that everyone, including the middle classes, should contribute and benefit, Cameron and Clegg increasingly favour a residual welfare state, primarily intended as a safety net for the poor.
Miliband’s position is part politics — the need to maintain public support for state provision — and part principle — the state has an obligation to support families, the elderly and the young, regardless of their income.
Prepare for this to be one of the defining debates of the coming months.