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28 September 2011

Miliband sharpens his message

The five key points from Miliband's Today programme interview this morning.

By George Eaton

Ed Miliband’s interview on the Today programme this morning was an important coda to yesterday’s speech. Here are five points that jumped out at me.

1. The centre ground has moved itself

I’ve previously written that Miliband is attempting to shift the centre ground to the left, just as Thatcher shifted it to the right. But it’s now clear that he believes the centre has moved itself. He told Jim Naughtie: “We are going to be firmly in the middle ground of politics, but the middle ground is changing.

“The idea that you shouldn’t have responsibility at the top of society – it is not a left-wing thing to say that there should be responsibility. It is absolutely in the middle ground.”

I think Miliband is right but there’s no guarantee that Labour will be the beneficiary of this leftwards shift.

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2. A new age of state activism

Miliband rejects the policy defeatism of the last decade, the belief that, in Thatcher’s words, “you can’t buck the market”. He vowed that free markets would no longer “land from outer space” and that the state would change the rules to encourage better practice. His pledge that government contracts would only be given to firms that hire apprentices is the clearest example of this.

Rather than distinguishing between good companies and bad companies as he did yesterday (a stance that smacks of the government “picking winners”), Miliband now emphasises that he is talking about “different business practices.”

In a better soundbite than any he delivered yesterday, he said that he was “not anti business” but “anti business as usual.”

3. Agreement with Vince Cable

After his rhetorical barbs against Nick Clegg, Miliband noted a rare point of agreement with a Lib Dem minister. He said he supported Vince Cable’s attempts to control executive pay: “I agree with some of what he said that, for example, there should be far greater transparency about what companies do, that shareholders should vote on remuneration packages before they are agreed.”

4. The limits of public spending

In an admission that was missing from yesterday’s speech, Miliband said that social justice would not be achieved through higher public spending, a clear dividing line with Gordon Brown.

“For the Labour Party … spending is not going to be the way that we achieve social justice in the next decade,” he said. “[U]nless you reform our economy, unless we find ways of tackling those issues, unless you get that political economy right we’re not going to get the change we want to see.”

The biggest problem is that 11 million low-to-middle earners have seen no rise in their real incomes since 2003, as less of what our economy produces has been paid out in wages – and more in profits. The diagnosis is clear but the prescription is not. In time, Miliband will have to offer solutions.

5. Substance will win out

In response to the focus group finding that voters see him as “weird” (discussed by Jonathan Freedland in his column today), Miliband insisted that substance would win out over style. “[T]he times are too serious, the issues are too grave, for us to say well, you know … it’s not about substance, it is about substance. It is absolutely about substance, the problems our country faces are so serious that actually the substance matters.”

One was reminded of Gordon Brown’s assertion that he was “a serious man for serious times”. In an age of presidential politics, Miliband’s wager is that his unflashy brand of social democracy will prevail. His fate – and that of Labour – depends on him being right.