It was sensible of Ed Miliband to tackle the prime minister over unemployment at prime minister’s questions today. No matter what the coalition says about falling interest rates, if people keep losing their jobs, the government’s robust position in the polls (if not quite a lead) is not going to last very long.
Miliband has tried to recreate a narrative from the 1980s: that the callous Tories don’t care about people losing their jobs. It’s not quite working yet, partially because voters still believe the government is clearing up Labour’s economic mess and partially because the 1980s are a fading memory. At one point, the Labour leader even had to explain who he meant by one reference to Lord Young, the former Tory employment minister, who is back working at Number 10.
But the real test at this PMQs was not for the prime minister, it was for Miliband himself, and particularly for his new economic policy. Would his position of “We oppose the cuts, but can’t promise to reverse them” collapse amid a gale of laughter? Would Labour MPs be forced to stare at their shoes in silent admission that they don’t understand the position?
Not quite. There was cheering from the Tory benches when Miliband got up to speak – but it wasn’t as loud or mocking as it seemed at the last session. And there was laughter when Cameron made his one-semi effective joke: “He can’t even make a U-turn properly.” But it didn’t feel like a chaotic collapse, and I don’t think the Tory benches scented blood.
And it was telling that the one person Cameron quoted from the Labour party saying apparently critical things about the leadership (one of his favourite tricks) was a previously unknown former staffer called Luke Bozier, who defected earlier this week. The opposition so far is holding firm.
More interesting though was quite how much Miliband’s attack lines sounded like his normal ones: unemployment is rising, he told the PM, because the government is cutting “too far and too fast”.
His aides have been keen to stress that the new stress on accepting the cuts in 2015 is not a defining moment, and simply builds on what he has been saying for a while. On this evidence, it doesn’t seem like it’s much of a change at all. So the question now is whether Balls and Miliband have done enough to save their party’s economic credibility.