Today Ed Miliband started the long fightback. He knows he can’t win on style, so he has to best the Government on content. He laid the foundations for what could be his most important message of 2012 – Ed sets the agenda, and others follow. On Murdoch, irresponsible capitalism or the squeezed middle he can plausibly argue that first he was ignored, then dismissed and a few short months later imitated.
Labour must do everything it can to hammer home this line on the ‘copycat coalition’ until the public notices. It is the way to sidestep the obvious critiques of Ed’s presentational imperfections. In six months time we need to hear on the doorstep (and in the focus group) ‘he’s no performer, but the others keep nicking his ideas’.
For this strategy to work though, he needs to flesh out his big themes. The speech today set out some fundamental principles, but there was no detail to latch onto. He won’t win his place as ‘man of substance’ without some crunchy specifics.
First off, there’s now nothing to lose in forcing the whole shadow cabinet to pronounce on short-term spending cuts. With the overall spending profile set in stone, shadow ministers are just looking evasive or naïve if they don’t own up to cuts they’d keep. Their list of cuts don’t need to be exhaustive (they should be illustrative) but they must be substantial. Being totally explicit on departmental spending also buys Ed Balls some credibility to make the case for one-off stimulus and job-creation schemes, out with ordinary government budgets.
Ed also needs a lot more examples of what it means to deliver fairness without public largesse. He was onto something today when he talked about companies ensuring their best prices are available to those who need them most. The mantra of ‘the poor pay more’ is familiar within left campaigning circles, but not much further. It could become part of his responsible capitalism critique – and it plays well with his ‘squeezed middle’ theme.
But today’s speech did miss an open goal. Ed was speaking to London Citizens, the architects of the Living Wage and he didn’t mention low pay. Tackling low pay, including steep rises to the Minimum Wage, is by far the most obvious and effective way of delivering fairness with no public money.
There’s still a huge amount of heavy lifting to do to bring ‘responsible capitalism’ and ‘cuts with fairness’ to life. Leftie policy wonks need to come up with concrete solutions that the leadership can start to pick and chose from. Tangible ideas on poverty pay and boardroom pay, cosy cartels and impenetrable pricing, growth sectors and targeted investment. That’s how Ed can win on content and have a message that matters around the country.
Today was just the beginning.
Andrew Harrop is the General Secretary of the Fabian Society. He writes in a personal capacity.