Labour has spent much of the last fortnight addressing its political weaknesses. Ed Miliband has made high-profile speeches on the deficit and immigration (the two subjects he forgot to mention in his conference address) and has announced general election pledges related to both. On the former, Labour has promised to reduce borrowing every year and to avoid unfunded manifesto commitments. On the latter, it has pledged to control immigration with “fair rules”, to ban migrants from claiming benefits for two years after their arrival and to make it illegal for employers to undercut wages by exploiting workers. Both are aimed at providing the party with the protective cover it will need during the election campaign.
Having “cleared away the undergrowth”, in the words of one strategist, Labour now plans to focus on maximising its strengths: living standards and the NHS. January will be the party’s “health month” with the conclusion of its mental health taskforce and the publication of a 10-year plan for health and social care by Andy Burnham. The party rightly regards the NHS, the issue on which it enjoys its biggest poll lead, as central to election victory. Voters consistently rank it at as one of the most important policy areas (or even the most important) and the role it played during the Scottish referendum (despite health being a devolved issue) was a reminder of the public’s affection for our national religion.
The Tories’ recent panicked pledge to spend £2bn more on the NHS was aimed at neutralising Labour’s attack. But the deteriorating state of the health service, and the blame the Conservatives have incurred as a result of their reorganisation, means they will struggle to reduce the opposition’s advantage. Labour’s lead on the issue has remained stubborn despite the Tories’ repeated attacks over Mid-Staffs and Wales. Indeed, one aide recently told me that every time Cameron mentions the NHS, Labour benefits as the subject rises up the agenda. Expect Miliband to now focus on ensuring that the health service, as he put it at a recent PMQs, is “on the ballot paper” in May.