For years the most frequent complaint about Ed Miliband was that he had no policies. Labour activists spoke of being sent “naked on to the doorstep”. Commentators questioned whether anything would emerge from Jon Cruddas’s policy review other than thoughtful ruminations on the state of England.
They cannot complain now. The “blank page” that Miliband once referred to has not so much been filled as flooded. In the past nine months he has pledged to freeze energy prices, to build 200,000 homes a year by 2020, to abolish the “bedroom tax”, to reintroduce the 50p tax rate, to create two new banks, to devolve £20bn of funding to city regions, to cap rent increases and, most recently, to link the minimum wage to median earnings. Having once been accused of having vision but no “retail offer”, the Labour leader quips to friends that he is now accused of having a retail offer but no vision.
If Labour endures a poor result on 22 May, becoming the first major opposition party not to win the European elections since 1984, Miliband’s instinct will be to expand, not shrink, the offer. “When Ed’s back is against the wall he does bold and radical things,” notes one shadow cabinet minister. In July 2011, after one of the worst months of his leadership, he went to war with Rupert Murdoch. In September 2013, after a similarly torrid period, he pledged to freeze energy prices. On everything from tuition fees and House of Lords reform to rail policy, one is told: “Ed wants a radical offer.”
To the Labour leader’s left, activists will urge him to be bolder still, noting majority public support for the renationalisation of the privatised utilities, a compulsory living wage and a 75 per cent tax rate. From his right, he will be told to guarantee an EU referendum and to toughen his stance on immigration and welfare. Few will question whether more policy is the solution.
The paradox for those who advocated a radical prospectus as the antidote to Labour’s woes is that the party’s poll lead has fallen, not risen, over this period, to the point where it is non-existent in some surveys. The surprise is that this should be surprising: most voters notice few, if any, announcements. Far more crucial in shaping preferences is the level of economic optimism and the overall perception of parties and their leaders. With the return of growth, it was inevitable that the Tories would begin to recover lost ground.
When asked about the outcome of the next general election, senior Labour figures often point out they are attempting to achieve something that has rarely been done: returning to government after just one term in opposition. Few point out they are also attempting to achieve something that has never been done: winning an election while trailing on economic management and on leadership. For months, Tory optimists and Labour pessimists cited this as evidence that Labour’s lead would eventually crumble. After recent polls, they are claiming vindication. “We’ve been defying gravity and now we’re falling to earth,” one Labour MP tells me. If Labour is to avoid defeat in 2015 (an outcome that some members of the shadow cabinet now regard as likely), its salvation will not lie in policy alone.
Shortly after becoming leader, Miliband instituted a “no huskies” rule, in reference to the stunts that David Cameron performed to introduce himself to voters. His reluctance was understandable. As William Hague’s ill-fated visit to the Notting Hill Carnival proved, such acts can hinder leaders more than they help them. But Labour should still devote more time to considering how better to project Miliband’s personal brand.
With the Tories now 14 points ahead on managing the economy (the highest figure since the formation of the coalition) and even George Osborne’s personal ratings back in the black, Labour strategists draw comfort from their lead as the party best placed to raise living standards. It is an advantage that may not last. Labour MPs are already questioning how to respond to a pre-election “cost of living” Budget from Osborne, with a cut in the basic rate of tax as its centrepiece. One Conservative points out to me: “Labour can moan about living standards, but we can act.”
As the Tories plot to colonise the Labour Party’s preferred battleground, the opposition needs to be wary of ceding the territory of economic competence. By promising to eliminate the current deficit by the end of the next parliament and to reduce the national debt as a share of GDP, Labour has gone further than most think in binding itself to fiscal rectitude.
But as one self-described shadow cabinet “hawk” laments: “No one knows about it.” Another MP tells me: “We need to do more to show we care as much about saving money as we do about spending it; as much about creating wealth as we do about distributing it.” This is less a policy than a state of mind.
The left’s preoccupation with policy reflects a sincere desire to attain power to improve the country, rather than merely for its own sake. Yet too often it resembles a displacement activity to avoid the thornier issues of leadership and economic competence. If Labour is to win the chance to govern, it needs to worry about policy a little less and about brand a little more.