After criticism of a lack of follow-through after his “one nation” address last year, Ed Miliband made it clear that he has learned from this error by devoting every one of his questions at PMQs to his energy price freeze. Cameron’s acknowledgement on Monday that the policy had “struck a chord” gave him an easy way in and he wittily contrasted the PM’s response with George Osborne’s comparison of Labour’s plans to Das Kapital: “Is it a good idea or a communist plot?”
The subsequent exchanges showed that, two weeks on from Miliband’s conference speech, Cameron still isn’t sure how to respond to the price freeze. He variously dismissed it as “a gimmick”, as “left-wing” and “socialist” (adding, in case it wasn’t clear, that Miliband inhabits a “Marxist universe”) and as unnecessary when he is already putting customers on the lowest energy tariff (a measure that Miliband said would benefit just 10% of households).
A more promising line of attack came when Cameron took aim at Miliband’s record as Energy Secretary and declared that the “rules and regulations” he introduced had pushed up prices. In a hint of action to come in the Autumn Statement, he said that the government was going to “go through” and see which it could remove. But with households paying £300 more since 2010 (as Miliband observed), this line will only prove effective once Cameron outlines what measures the governmment will repeal and how this will bring down prices.
Until then, Miliband remains on the front foot. At no other PMQs since he became leader has a policy he announced so dominated the debate. If Cameron wants to persuade the public that he “gets it”, he would be wise to drop the “Red Ed” attacks. As I’ve pointed out before, if Miliband is a socialist, so are most voters. Polls show that around two-thirds of the public support a 50p tax rate, a mansion tax, stronger workers’ rights, a living wage and the renationalisation of the railways and the privatised utilities. By branding Miliband a “socialist” and a “Marxist”, Cameron only ensures that voters will be pleasantly surprised by his moderation.