After David Cameron’s threat to avoid the TV debates unless the Greens are included, Labour has been briefing for several days that it would support broadcasters “empty-chairing” the PM if necessary. In his interview on this morning’s Andrew Marr Show, Ed Miliband intensified the pressure by declaring that he was prepared to take part with Cameron or without him. “If an empty chair represents David Cameron in these debates then so be it,” he said.
But few in Westminster believe that the broadcasters will have the pluck to empty-chair Cameron, and that the inclusion of the Greens (which would help split the left) or the cancellation of the debates altogether is more likely. For Labour, the consolation is that the sight of the supposedly “strong” PM running scared has undermined his personal brand.
Miliband used the rest of the interview to return to the political territory that has proved successful for him in the past: living standards. In view of the plummeting oil price, he announced that Labour would stage a Commons vote next Wednesday on its proposal to give Ofgem the power to force energy companies to pass on reductions to consumers. By announcing this plan, Miliband has outflanked the coalition, which has so far limited itself to verbal threats. He believes that his willingness to “intervene” in markets remains one of Labour’s greatest political strengths. But it is worth asking how he would have acted had Labour’s planned energy price freeze already been imposed (a question Marr failed to put to him). Miliband also discussed his plan, trailed in advance, to introduce a new Living Standards Index and end the narrow obsession with GDP, from which household incomes have become detached.
Elsewhere, he refused to deny saying that he wanted to “weaponise” the NHS (as David Cameron alleged at this week’s PMQs), instead replying, “I don’t recall exactly what I said” and adding that “I don’t think this is about the words we use”. He also failed to rule out a post-election coalition with the SNP, merely saying that he was “not about deals”.
Finally, ahead of Tuesday’s vote on George Osborne’s Charter of Budget Responsibility he rejected the Chancellor’s claim that Labour’s support for the measure meant it was committing itself to £30bn of cuts or tax rises. He emphasised that while Labour would cut spending year-on-year in unprotected areas (currently everything excluding the NHS and international development) and raise taxes on the wealthy, it would also seeek to achieve higher growth through increased wages and productivity. Labour’s hope is that by using up the spare capacity in the economy, the level of austerity required to eliminate the deficit may yet prove less than most forecast.