As the Labour party gathers for its conference in Brighton, its leader, Ed Miliband, faces a more aggressive Conservative party that is getting its act together. David Cameron’s strategists have launched what will be a relentless campaign to persuade voters that, despite all the pain and hardship of the austerity years, “hard-working families” can now enjoy lower income tax and a smaller public deficit with less welfare spending, crime and immigration. Labour’s task is to dispute these claims but, above all, offer better policies in their place.
Mr Miliband has laid important foundations for his campaign. He has recalibrated Labour’s position on public spending, welfare and immigration, aligning his approach with economic reality and popular opinion. He has ensured that Labour’s door remains open to working with the Liberal Democrats, despite the short-sighted attacks made by some in the party. Above all, he has not allowed his party its habitual descent into factional war following election defeat. With the quiescence of the New Labourites he disowned during his leadership campaign, the party has chosen to close ranks behind him.
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Local activists are likely to side with him in his bid to reform the party’s link with the trade unions – despite Mr Miliband’s not preparing the ground for this plan and confusing union leaders who had thought he shared their general outlook and are now wondering where he stands.
Assuming Mr Miliband gets his way on changing the union link – now a must-have for him – he still has work to do to persuade the voters to put him in Downing Street. This is not going to be achieved by “shouting louder” – as some in the shadow cabinet believe. It is content the voters want, not volume. Herein lies Mr Miliband’s dilemma.
Originally, he chose to define himself less as Ed Miliband and more as “not Tony Blair”. But he must now accentuate the positive rather than what he is not. And he must do this without forsaking those who backed him to become prime minister on an explicitly more leftwing agenda than New Labour’s.
The problem is that whereas during his leadership campaign this proposition seemed simple – after all, New Labour was defeated in 2010 – circumstances have changed. Not only have the public finances become even more straitened but voters have not turned against their fiscally disciplined, market friendly, centrist instincts in the ways that Team Miliband assumed would happen.
So Labour will need to cement a broad-based appeal if it is to win and govern. Relying on the backing of a left-leaning third of the electorate was never going to work. The Tories have done their homework on what appeals to the centre ground and Labour’s polling suggests the party has further to go to cater to these crucial voters.
It is not Mr Miliband’s character or moral fervour with which they have a problem. The public like his stand on phone-hacking and his focus on the “squeezed middle” and living standards – although they were less convinced by his tactics over Syria. But the electorate wants more. They want an analysis of how Mr Miliband sees the country’s needs and how Labour will differ from the coalition in meeting them. “One Nation” is a good line for a banner but needs an argument to support it and to set out an alternative. In 1997, our rallying cry was “Britain deserves better”. It is time to bring out a new, distinctive version of this election-winning argument.
In his speech on Tuesday, the main subject has to be the economy and how higher living standards can be delivered. He must define himself, above all, with workable long-term policies that make sense for business, investment and job creation, while recognising the importance of selective strategic state intervention. We must pump-prime the markets, technologies and innovation we need to succeed.
Labour also needs radicalism to improve health, education and other public services. We previously had money plus reform. In 2015 the party must offer reform with no more money. Mr Miliband also needs to signal how he will adapt Britain’s social welfare model to Britain’s changing demography and economy.
Mr Miliband’s team like to argue that they “have more policy than any other opposition in the history of modern politics”. The public has not noticed. Mr Miliband needs better communications support. Gone are the days when parliamentary lobby journalists held the key to a party’s image. Mr Miliband’s brand and message need to be recast for the age of social media, and he needs to show boldness and political artistry in grabbing his share of attention. This is best done arguing from clear principles and having the courage to stick by them.
As the next election approaches, Conservative claims about “the mess” they inherited and why “the keys shouldn’t be handed back to those who crashed the car” will sound tired. Even so, Labour needs to do far more to protect its record in government. The next election is open and all to play for. But if it is to be won by Labour, the campaign has to start firing on all cylinders soon – not in 18 months time.
The writer, formerly director of communications for Labour and business secretary, is chairman of Global Counsel
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