“Gloomy” was how one questioner described Ed Miliband at last night’s TV event. And with his repeated references to the “cost-of-living crisis” some in Labour do fear that their leader comes across as too pessimistic a figure; better at diagnosing problems than offering solutions.
His speech today at the launch of Labour’s general election campaign was designed to reposition him as the candidate of hope and optimism. There was no mention of “crisis” as Miliband instead reprised the motif of his 2013 conference speech (more successful than last year’s effort): “Britain can do better do this”. The location – the top of The Orbit in the Olympic Park – was chosen with this message in mind. “That incredible summer was our country at its best,” Miliband said. “And what was at the heart of those games? A spirit of optimism. A belief that Britain can do better. And that same spirit is at the heart of our election campaign.” Labour strategists wanted him to strike an unambiguously optimistic tone.
Miliband’s impressive performance last night aided him in this task; morale among MPs and activists is higher than at any point for months. The Labour leader was greeted as a returning hero , one who demonstrated just why David Cameron was so desperate to avoid a head-to-head debate with him.
His policy focus – the NHS – came as no surprise. With Labour enjoying a larger lead on this issue than any other, the party is determined to ensure it remains salient. Miliband promised a “double lock” on the health service (an allusion to the coalition’s “triple lock” on the state pension): an end to reckless privatisation and increased funding (£2.5bn “over and above” whatever the Tories promise). Those private companies who continue to provide NHS services will be subject to a profit cap of 5 per cent. “The money we pay for our health care should be invested for patient care not for excess profits for private firms,” said Miliband.
Buoyed by last night’s success, he resonated the optimism he spoke of. As Roosevelt, Attlee, Wilson, Blair and Obama all understood, the essential currency of progressive politics is hope. The challenge for Miliband will be to sustain this tone in the heat of the battle to come.