I’ll gloss over his cruel treatment by John Humphrys on Today, his 35-minute-late arrival at his own press conference and the hostile questioning by some journalists today.
On matters of substance, did Ed Miliband offer up any new policy?
There was a new idea; forcing energy companies to put elderly customers on their cheapest tariffs. This would apply to all over-75s, many of whom fail to shop around or don’t have internet access.
It’s quite a smart policy and wouldn’t cost the government anything. (Although energy companies are likely to complain that it could impact on their investment plans.) In practice it could also mean other people’s energy bills rising, but for now Miliband was able to deny that potential consequence.
The move follows on from plans, announced at conference, to limit the power of Britain’s “big six” energy companies by stopping them from producing gas and electricity and selling it themselves. (Instead, all their energy would go into a central pool, allowing supermarkets and others to enter the supply market.)
For those who thought that the keynote conference speech about “predators v producers” was too vague, this kind of detail should be welcomed. (We’ll ignore the point that Miliband did little to address these issues as energy secretary.)
There will be more “fleshing out” of the concept of responsible capitalism in the coming weeks, with a consumer-focused campaign against high credit card charges, loan sharks and low-cost airlines, as I understand it.
Miliband is right to point out that some of his key themes, such as boardroom responsibility, have now been picked up by the coalition. (Although I’d have expected Vince Cable, for example, to have pursued this agenda without any prompting from the opposition benches)
The fear is – as Rachel Sylvester points out in today’s Times – that his messages are popular but the public do not find him a particularly agreeable messenger. The Humphrys questioning on the Today programme may have been ill-judged (was it appropriate to compare Miliband to Robin Cook, who admitted he was ‘too ugly’ to be party leader?) but does reflect the fact that the public have not warmed to him for some reason.
Nor does the Labour message seem entirely coherent just yet, despite Miliband’s protestations that all of his policies are costed and that he is serious about addressing the deficit – and having no money to spend if he wins in 2015.
One example: the Labour leader said in his speech that people would criticise him, saying “values cost money – it’s easy to talk about fairness but how will we achieve it with less money around?”
Yet his speech was held with an audience from London Citizens, the campaigning group which achieved the living wage (higher than the minimum wage) for thousands of workers in London. Repeatedly Miliband held up this campaign as a great thing and encouraged the group to pursue it at a national level, and to press Labour councils to instigate it. The event even began with a speech from a 20-year old activist from London Citizens.
Yet he went on to say:
“I can’t promise that the next government under Labour would legislate for it now, because of the financial implications, but it is a very important campaign.”
So although his heart is with the campaigners, and he is encouraging them, and believes in the importance of the concept of a living wage – he won’t actually do it at a national level.
Here in a nutshell is the Labour dilemma; torn between promising goodies to voters and simultaneously insisting on economic competence, ie not indulging in tax and spend.
Miliband went on to justify why he couldn’t make a firm promise on the living wage:
“You’re absolutely right about the importance of the living wage……but part of the reason that trust in politics is now low is that people make promises they can’t keep. I can’t make that promise until I can keep it.”
That all sounds very noble. Others might say: why align yourself so closely with a cause, basking in its reflected glory, when you have no intention of implementing it?