Challenge ahead: The Ed issue

Party aides are worried that because no one knows what Labour plans, its poll lead could soon disappear

He is widely derided as a geek: a junior policy wonk with funny teeth who by, a twist of fate, has found himself in the job of leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

But as Ed Miliband begins the Labour Party conference today with an unprecedented opinion poll lead and a party that is finally showing signs of falling into line behind him, it may just be time to accept that he could be Britain's next Prime Minister.

His performance this week could be the beginning of a triumphant march towards Downing Street. Or it may be another yet another false start, a sideways move into a cul-de-sac of empty rhetoric and baffling concepts.

Team Miliband has worked hard over the past two years, to steer their man away from ridicule and to manoeuvre him into a healthy lead over both coalition parties. But they, as much as his scornful opponents, recognise that the task is far from complete. Ed Miliband has managed to win the respect of many sceptical voters but now he will have to clinch the deal and persuade them to elect him to lead the country.

Conference season has started well at Miliband's home in London, where he has spent the last week writing and rehearsing his speech at the dining-room table, with his two sons playing at his feet.

The Conservative and Liberal Democrat leaderships have been preoccupied with threats of dissent, even challenges to their authority, but Miliband has been comforted by a poll lead of anything between 10 and 16 points. The Labour leader suddenly appears to be meeting the approval of his party, as well as the wider electorate; three-quarters of Labour supporters pronounce themselves "highly confident" that the party will win the next election, and a similar number maintain that Miliband has performed well.

Yet there is lingering concern within the highest echelons of the party that the polls reflect displeasure with the coalition, rather than approval of Labour under Miliband. The polling firm TNS BRMB estimates that more than a third of Labour's new supporters have switched from the Lib Dems, and 11 per cent come direct from the Tories. But almost half of the switchers are people who failed to vote at all at the last election. Better economic conditions before the election, or even a few light showers on polling day, and many of Labour's new converts might just stay away again. If the Tories and the Lib Dems get their political act together, Labour's healthy lead could easily evaporate by Christmas.

Yet, even if Labour emerges from this phase with any sort of lead, there is a more troubling concern for the leader's camp: even after a period of relative success, Miliband's personal approval still lags behind that of his party. Although aides point out that, since January, Miliband has made a 31-point gain, while David Cameron has seen his rating fall by 25 points, the man in No 10 remains the more credible prime minister.

"Miliband is at least ahead of the ratings polled by William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith as opposition leaders at this point, but he is still behind where Cameron was," said Gideon Skinner, head of political research at Ipsos Mori. "Cameron simply appears more prime ministerial; he is seen as smart enough and tough enough for the job. Clearly, politics has become more presidential in recent years, so this is an important consideration."

The interpretation has not been ignored by Labour's opponents. Several Lib Dem ministers at their party conference last week professed that they remained untroubled by the expanding Labour lead, insisting it is just a cyclical event. "It is a protest vote that won't even make it to the polling booths," one said. "People just haven't connected with Miliband, or don't see him as a prime minister. If anything, he should be doing even better at this point; when it comes to the crunch, [the voters] won't be convinced."

This analysis exudes the textbook optimism of a government in trouble, but both the Lib Dems and the Tories are convinced of the underlying truth: if the economy refuses to rescue them from electoral defeat, Ed Miliband is their next best bet. When the autumn offensive gets under way, starting with the Tory conference in Birmingham next week, the prime target will be Miliband himself, rather than his party.

Veteran Labour spinners suggest that Miliband has more work to do on his image – his appearance and political profile – before he can concentrate on policies. But Mark Ferguson, editor of the LabourList website, insists that more concrete changes are needed. "What's important is that he is able to explain why or how Labour are different," he said. "We don't need the whole manifesto this week, but at least one major policy that shows where Labour are headed would be useful."

The most pressing demand is for an idea of how Labour would revitalise the economy. Labour is seen as the party most trusted to handle its areas of traditional strength – notably health and education – but it still trails the Tories on "harder" issues, including crime and "managing the economy".

Even then, aides fear that Labour will struggle to improve on its 10 MPs out of a total of 197 across the south and east of England – areas that it needs to win back if it is to get an outright majority at the next election in 2015.

Caroline Flint, the party's energy spokesperson, warned last week that the whole of the UK is becoming more like the South – more middle class, with a greater proportion of home ownership and higher levels of private sector employment.

"As a result, addressing the underlying causes of Labour's southern discomfort is not just a priority for the South, but for the whole country," she told Progress magazine. "Floating voters decide elections. All politicians naturally want to be popular within their own parties but, in the end, what matters most to Labour party members is the election of a Labour government.

"The idea that Labour can win with a core-vote strategy, focused on convincing disgruntled working-class voters to return to the fold, just does not stack up."

To clinch the deal with an electorate that is at least now listening to him, Miliband needs to look better, sound better and offer solutions to the whole range of Britain's problems. He has thus far shown no inclination to offer more precise details of what he would do if he were put in charge of the country, beyond general aspirations, such as the "predistribution" of wealth. It appears that this week will be no different.

A Labour source said last night that the theme of the week will be the assertion that Britain needs a change, that the next election will be the "big change election", that the Tories "have shown they are not a force for change" and that "the Labour Party can be that change".

The party source added: "We have made it clear that we can and would change the rules to build a more responsible capitalism.

"Ed Miliband is ready to lead that change. He has shown his strength on the Murdochs, on banking, on standing up to pretty powerful people. He is the man who has the big ideas and he will show that he is the man that has got the ideas to take Britain forward and see the country through."

It may earn him an ovation at conference, but it is hardly likely to win him any more votes. Miliband's is a safety-first strategy, designed to keep any ideas secret until the election is in view. But even within the party there is concern that the leader will never be regarded as a credible PM until he lets people know what he has planned.

"He has to stop talking about hard choices and make some hard choices about what his position is on important issues like the economy," said a former Labour adviser, Dan Hodges. "And then tell people what he is going to do. Only then will he start looking like a prime minister, and only then will he get closer to clinching the deal with the electorate."

Verdict on Miliband as leader

"In the years leading up to 2010, Ed dazzled members with unscripted speeches at conferences of internal Labour groupings such as Progress and Compass. The public hasn't seen this Ed yet."

Dr Rupa Huq; Sociology lecturer and blogger

"Ed is paying the price for not defining himself from the start. The poll lead cannot be relied on because people don't know him well enough to decide that he is a credible PM."

Dan Hodges; Writer and former Labour adviser

"Ed Miliband must do more than hope to sneak into No 10 by default, on dissatisfaction and austerity. Neither party leader has told a clear national story about a vision for the country."

Sunder Katwala; Director of British Future

"Ed has provided a strong voice for the party, articulating a message of more responsible capitalism that has resonated with voters. But we should never be complacent."

Rushanara Ali MP; Labour spokesperson on international development

IoS quiz: Do you know your predistribution from your elbow?

1 How did Jon Cruddas, head of Labour's policy review, describe the relationship between Ed Miliband and Ed Balls? (a) "They have had constructive discussions"; (b) "Sweetness and light"; (c) "They have been getting on particularly badly recently"; (d) "What I would read as creative energy, others would read as factional or political disagreement."

2 What is "predistribution"? (a) handing out money and then working out how to raise it; (b) the Calvinist doctrine that God has decided who shall be saved; (c) a form of social democracy for hard times; (d) an advance order.

3 Who has NOT been described as a "guru" to Ed Miliband? (a) Maurice Glasman; (b) Jacob Hacker; (c) D'ronzjiah Mathews; (d) Tim Soutphommasane.

4 Which member of the Shadow Cabinet was a teenage campanologist and has just passed his/her grade I piano exam? (a) Caroline Flint; (b) Chuka Umunna; (c) Ed Balls; (d) Yvette Cooper.

5 Whom did Ed Miliband tell off for texting during a meeting of the Shadow Cabinet? (a) Caroline Flint; (b) Chuka Umunna; (c) Ed Balls; (d) Yvette Cooper.

6 What did Ed Miliband say has sustained him during times of difficulty? (a) "Twix bars and bananas"; (b) "Justine, plus my instincts"; (c) "A box set of The West Wing"; (d) "My brother".

Answers 1d, 2c, 3c, 4c, 5c, 6b.

0-2 Your application for guru status is pending.

3-4 You are the squeezed middle.

5-6 Congratulations. You are a producer, not a predator.

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