It is a measure of the mountain that Labour has to climb that this week's ComRes poll put the Conservatives one point ahead of them.
The economy is flatlining and even the International Monetary Fund is now hinting that the Coalition’s austerity programme has been too brutal. Labour should be riding high. Its plan to halve the deficit over four years looks like the right call after all.
Yet, seemingly, most voters still do not trust Labour and even fewer of them can imagine Ed Miliband as a future prime minister.
So the Labour leader’s keynote speech at the party’s annual conference in Liverpool yesterday was seen as critical to dispelling doubts about both the party and its leader. If Labour is to stand a chance of returning to power in 2015, Mr Miliband must not only raise his game in opposition but show he has a vision for the future.
This was a well-crafted speech and one that suggested he has thought long and hard about where he would like to take British politics. Its central theme was one politicians have tended to steer clear of in the wake of the expenses scandal: morality. This was not Gordon Brown’s old “moral compass” but Mr Miliband’s identification with the unsung majority of hard-working, fair-minded British people, who do not hack phones or earn telephone number salaries and do not loot shops either. He used to call them “the squeezed middle”.
“Every day of your life seems like a tough fight,” he said, acknowledging their struggle to make ends meet and their fears for their jobs and their children’s futures in a morally inverted system based on a skewed set of values. In the world according to Mr Miliband, producers would be rewarded and predators penalised, rather than all businesses being treated the same way.
How? After all, the super-rich got richer under Labour, even if child and pensioner poverty fell. Mr Miliband did not spell out quite how his compassionate capitalism would work, beyond using Government procurement to reward companies that offered proper training and apprenticeships and installing workers on company remuneration committees, as in Scandinavia. It was the sort of rhetoric we heard from Vince Cable before he got his feet under the Cabinet table.
As well as those who cheated the system at the top, Mr Miliband targeted cheats at the bottom too: the looters and the benefit cheats, tacitly conceding that Labour in government should and could have done more to tackle the latter. Meanwhile, as he observed, under the Coalition it is low-paid workers who have taken the biggest hit.
The speech was well-received by an audience that seemed to be bursting with enthusiastic young supporters, suggesting that reports of the Labour Party’s demise may be premature. Did it chime with voters? As the comprehensive-school educated son of a Nazi refugee, Mr Miliband was well-placed to appeal to those who feel Britain continues to be run by closed circles of self-perpetuating elites. That may come. Yet, to date, it is Eton-educated David Cameron who appears to have the more common touch. Yesterday’s speech set out a promising direction of travel but what the UK needs right now is not a Government in waiting but a combative opposition.
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