Today is a difficult day for Ed Miliband and the Labour party. Which way do they tack on the issue of riots?
Ed’s instincts are to examine the social causes for the disorder, and tackle its root causes. But he knows the public might see that as excusing criminal behaviour, so he has to tread a fine line, especially if he wants to distance himself in part from the government.
His speech started in a moderate tone, welcoming the prime minister’s speech and thanking the Speaker for recalling parliament. This is a tactic he has used effectively in recent months, starting consensually before working himself to a rousing and more combative finish.
But the climax never came. He found a few technical points on which to challenge the Tories, including:
1) That there should not be a cap on the government-backed payouts for victims of looting;
2) The costs of the police operation should be funded by the Treasury reserve;
3) The increased police presence could continue beyond this weekend.
On all of these points, and others, Cameron was able to give a positive response. On two other points, Miliband had an open goal to aim at, namely use of CCTV, which Cameron wants to regulate more heavily, and cuts to police numbers. On both, Labour is on the side of public opinion where the coalition is not.
On neither point, however, did he register anything close to passion, despite the anger felt in the country, especially on police cuts.
Where he was most fluent and most interesting was on the underlying social reasons for the unrest. He used Cameron’s own words (“To seek to explain is not to seek to excuse”) to blunt the possible government attack on his message.
This is a generation – and this is not just about one government – that is worried about their prospects.
He also sought to link the looting to wider greed in society:
We need an end to the ‘take what you can’ culture that goes from the benefits office to the boardroom.
But despite his warnings that politicians should not allow this chance to address such complex themes to pass, it is unlikely his considered comments will strike much of a chord with the public, many of whom are still angry and frightened.
Interestingly, Miliband did manoeuvre David Cameron into a position he may find difficult to stick to. The prime minister said:
I believe that [cutting police budgets] is totally achievable without any reductions in visible policing.
So now, if it does become clear that front line policing is being cut, Labour have Cameron’s own words with which to skewer him.