Forget Wallace, what Miliband doesn’t have is sufficient distinction in the message

If Miliband can't win on style, substance becomes more important, but I’m not sure Labour really understand this.

If Miliband can’t win on style, substance becomes more important, but I’m not sure Labour really understand this

Ed Miliband has been in full counterattack mode over the past few days. On Friday he attempted to defuse the Wallace bomb by claiming he wouldn’t even try and out do the Prime Minister in the image stakes. On Sunday he appeared on Andrew Marr to sell much the same message, albeit with some new material on a People’s Question Time.

The message is clear – you might not think Miliband is a cool guy, but he’s the best guy to be Prime Minister.

The right – predictably – has had some fun at this, and it is indeed unfortunate that it arrived on the week Miliband dashed to Washington to grab a picture with Barack Obama. But the problem facing the electorate isn’t just articulated by the response of the right.

On the left, last week’s speech has produced a series of articles including Miliband the future ‘accidental prime minister,’ and laudatory stuff on ‘a gamble worth taking’. The problem with such pieces is not necessarily that they are wrong, but that they highlight the exact problem Miliband was articulating. Politics is now viewed and described in purely procedural terms – where voters are second guessed but not directly talked to.

But you don’t win General Elections through Comment is Free. The questions such pieces rarely address is that it is difficult, even for some Labour supporters, to get pumped by the notion of Miliband stumbling into Downing Street through the varies of the psephology. We’re constantly presented with this notion of a man who might, if he holds his nerve, get away with it. That’s not really going to get last minute waverers dashing to the polling station to jam in their vote at 9.59pm.

This boils down to a twofold problem.

Firstly, in their need to triangulate policy to death, Labour have often ended up committing to less than stellar action. They claim the coalition isn’t building enough homes. Good. But then they pick a figure – 200,000 units – that is 20 per cent below the quarter of a million houses required to keep up with present population rises.

Similarly, they say Osborne isn’t doing enough to encourage the living wage, but their promise is to vaguely encourage such moves through public procurement procedures – no targets even, say, of how many councils will be doing this by 2020. And they claim that the banks aren’t paying nearly enough for the damage of 2008, but their radical re-think extends to trotting out the policy of Darling 2009 (the bonus tax) and Osborne 2010 (increasing the bank levy). Great.

Post-Blair Labour don’t want to over-promise, or be seen to be doing as such. But with – by his own admission – hardly a master salesman at the top, the actual offer needs to be greater at this stage. In our survey of over 400 councillors published by Anglia Ruskin University last week, 8 in 10 respondents in Labour’s target seats felt the party’s current policy offer was ‘too timid’. This has been a perennial refrain.

Put simply, we know Cameron and Clegg are the better debaters. Maybe that will change over the next nine months, but it is unlikely. So if Miliband cannot win on style, the substance indeed becomes elevated, and I’m not sure Labour really understand the path this will take.

Forget Wallace, what Miliband doesn’t have is sufficient distinction in the actual message. Consider the likely TV debate exchanges. We know every Cameron answer will end with some variant of ‘more jobs, growth up, inflation controlled, deficit down’. Fine. But even in the patter before that stage, Cameron will be able to fudge some variant about how the Coalition has gone someway along the path Labour claim desirable but have baulked at the rest due to reasons of economy. Cue transition to the big four lines. It’s going to be hard for Miliband to land a glove.

Energy and rail are perhaps the two great exceptions. One in five respondents to our councillor survey in the target seats picked the former as Labour’s biggest vote winner on their patch (beaten only by pledging to scrap the bedroom tax and repealing the NHS bill), whilst going further on rail (pledging to re-nationalise where it makes business sense) was viewed as a potential additional vote winner by 88 per cent of such types.

The actual workings of an energy bill freeze is not without problems, but at least it is something – a unique hook. At the moment Miliband is too often trying to ‘authentically’ promise transformational change whilst sticking with borders prescribed by Blair and Cameron. That would be difficult for Don Draper, let alone a bookish guy from North London.

And secondly, though the whole responsible versus predatory capitalism distinction is exactly right (for all its wonkishness), Labour’s rhetoric has occasionally been all over the place. The party is hardly one just of the chattering middle class, but days like labelling a reduction in the cost of childcare an ‘au pair subsidy’ have not been great PR.

Similarly, on Friday Miliband claimed leadership was about ‘not being dismissive or contemptuous of people, whoever they are, wherever they come from.’ This would have had greater weight before four years of press releases on ‘out of touch Old Etonians who just don’t get it’.

In my new book One Nation Britain, published today, I argue that charges that Miliband is an innate class warrior are nonsense. I also argue there is a historic cross-party consensus for greater policy action in a number of areas than Labour have currently offered. Instead, we have too often seen a moderate offer from Labour combined with rhetoric from shadow ministers giving some cause to work the press into a lather. An unwelcome combination.

And yet, for all this, Miliband has to be favourite to walk into Downing Street in May 2015. A combination of the rise of UKIP, a Lib Dem collapse, and the fact that an incumbent government (whose Prime Minister gained a relatively low 36 per cent last time round) rarely increases its share of the vote means Miliband will likely lead the largest party in the House of Commons soon enough.

And, eventual coalition or not, he could still be a great Prime Minister. He should use the next nine months to secure a mandate for genuine reform, not worrying about bacon sandwiches.

Richard Carr is a lecturer at the Labour History Research Unit, Anglia Ruskin University, and a contributing editor to Left Foot Forward. He publishes the book One Nation Britain this summer

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