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Miliband’s turn as a street preacher is hampered by his lack of disciples

The Labour leader is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Politicians face a simple choice when the public disagrees with them: yield or defy. They can bend policy to suit opinion polls or reinforce the unpopular case in the hope of changing minds. The worst thing to do is to try both and succeed at neither. That is Labour’s approach to a range of issues, most notably welfare.

Every survey shows British hearts hardening against the benefits system. It is believed to promote idleness and fraud. That suspicion allows George Osborne to take money away from some of the least fortunate people in the country and present it as justice – a purge of waste and a restoration of the proper balance between effort and reward.

The chutzpah of it enrages the left. The Tory strategy exploits the public’s inflated view of how much milking of the system goes on and how much it costs. Ministers mangle statistics and cite the most perverse cases – the apocryphal family of lager-soaked layabouts squatting in mansions at taxpayers’ expense – as if they were typical. Many benefit cuts won’t even save the exchequer money. Taking support away from penniless people creates social emergencies that end up costing more in the long run.

That provokes much of Labour into defiance. Surely, the argument goes, the evidence can be fashioned into a sword for slaying the propaganda beast? If people believe Osborne, it must be because the right-wing media are peddling lies or because the gruesome effect of the cuts isn’t yet visible. The passage of time is invoked as Ed Miliband’s secret weapon.

A similar line of thinking sustains Labour in another argument it isn’t winning – the one about austerity. On 26 June, Osborne will set out his spending plans for the year 2015-2016. Labour will be challenged to say whether it would spend more and, if so, how such generosity might be funded.

Ed Balls’s response is that the cuts are a symptom of economic failure and that this latest Spending Review wouldn’t be necessary at all if the Chancellor had managed to grow the economy. It is a variation of the old line “We wouldn’t start from here” – and it fails to convince because everyone knows that a Labour government would face grim fiscal dilemmas wherever it started from.

Labour strategists point out that no sensible opposition declares its spending strategy two years before a general election. Why should Miliband debate on terms dictated by a chancellor whose judgement has been audited by independent economists and proven dud? That invites the counter-question: why, given that Osborne is a neon-lit disaster factory, have the terms of debate shifted so little? Whose job is it to shift them?

Miliband has the same problem discussing the economy as he has with welfare. Many voters think that Labour is to blame for the mess and he disagrees. People think that Gordon Brown spent too much money, especially on benefits. Miliband doesn’t accept those charges but nor does he enjoy rebutting them. He tries to shuffle past them. He concedes that a future Labour government would have to spend less than the last one but doesn’t say on what. He says that Labour would guarantee jobs for people capable of working and dock their benefits if they refuse.

He gives the impression of a man itching to change the subject when asked to show contrition over something for which he feels no apology is due.

It isn’t working. Even some Miliband loyalists complain that the party line on benefits is bombing on the doorstep. They meet enraged voters who work for dwindling wages and hate subsidising the family with their feet up next door. Osborne’s mobilisation of that fury may be cynical but he isn’t making it up. Labour MPs report that the “jobs guarantee” doesn’t placate fuming punters.

It doesn’t help that party morale has taken a knock in recent weeks. Miliband has been buffeted by advice from people who can diminish his authority just by airing a view in public. Tony Blair warned against lefty comfort zones; the Unite general secretary, Len McCluskey, warned against Blairism. The resurgence of these old antagonisms needn’t have been so destabilising. They furnish an opportunity for Miliband to clarify his identity – to reaffirm the message that he is neither “New” nor “Old” Labour but something different, something fresh. But what? The undercurrent of dread I detect in the Labour ranks flows not from the feeling that Miliband belongs to the wrong faction but from the sense that his whole project is becalmed.

The Labour leader can charm voters individually. He is witty and engaging on the campaign trail, although those qualities refuse to come across on television. A bit more animal magnetism wouldn’t go amiss but what Labour people crave most is the sense that Miliband is winning the big arguments, shifting the terms of debate – and more than just one voter at a time. His leadership is based on the claim to have foreseen a great change in the climate of British politics. He is meant to be capturing the mood of the country as it turns away from the Tories. Instead, he’s picking up Ukip’s moody leftovers.

Miliband’s “one-nation” Labour is soft-left evangelism. It sells optimism and solidarity as the antidote to division and despair. Yet the basic requirement of an evangelist is the ability to instil faith and win converts. Miliband too often cuts the lonely figure of a preacher with a restless congregation and not enough disciples.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman