Miliband is searching for his missing link with the public

Party has discovered just where it failed. Now it must find out how it can succeed

In a deserted room full of switched-off computers and telephones, Liam Byrne sits surrounded by the nation's judgement on his party. Labour has been in contact with more than a million people during the first year of Ed Miliband's leadership, organised 200 events and, crucially, received 20,000 responses to its consultation on what the party should do next.

The replies, piled neatly on the desk in front of Labour's policy director on the ground floor of Labour HQ, may not be what Mr Miliband wanted to hear. The leader would prefer to train his fire on the failings of the coalition this week, to concentrate on the problems with the economy and unemployment and the Government's culpability for them. He wants to highlight the problems of the "squeezed middle" and the need for responsibility at the top and bottom of society.

But the experience of the last year suggests voters are not yet convinced Labour has the qualities to form a credible opposition, let alone an effective government. "It's been quite a tough process," Mr Byrne confessed. "Most of us who've spent a lot of time on the doorstep over the last couple of years knew the type of thing we'd get – and we got it, both barrels.

The consultation suggests Labour will need to change its priorities if it is to get back in line with the electorate's primary concerns. Welfare was a recurring theme. Mr Byrne admitted that "many people thought we stood for shirkers and not workers". On immigration, always an incendiary issue, he conceded that the party in government "just didn't talk about it enough". "It was an issue we neglected to talk about as much as we could," Mr Byrne said. "That's why, when we got to the election, 65 per cent of people thought Labour was seriously out of touch with the concerns of the working population. That's quite an achievement."

Another veteran of the Blair and Brown administrations is convinced the party must endure further pain before it can stage a meaningful recovery. Tessa Jowell, the Blairite shadow Olympics minister, warns that, nearly 18 months after the election, it remains the case that "nobody is listening" to the opposition party because, when it was in power, Labour lost the confidence of voters over the economy, immigration and social responsibility. And, in the aftermath of the hacking scandal and the summer riots, she claims voters have retreated from engagement with politics – a criticism targeted not just at the Labour Party but also the coalition.

Ms Jowell will deliver some hard truths to her party at the start of conference week. Everyone scheduled to speak this evening at the Progress rally has contributed to the Purple Book, essays from the Blairites urging Mr Miliband to place his flag firmly in the centre ground. The Labour leader has written the foreword, but there is no suggestion that he has signed up wholesale to its thesis.

He is being pulled in several directions. "I don't think it was any coincidence that nobody won the last election because the collective mood was that nobody was going to win," Ms Jowell said. "I am not sure if we had another election today... I think Labour would do better, but I still don't think that there would necessarily be an outright winner."

Labour, Ms Jowell maintains, needs to show "responsibility in opposition" over the course of this Parliament. "We have to be true to a progressive centre, a progressive centre that, to go right back to the origins of New Labour, saw no contradiction between economic efficiency and social justice. That was right for 1994, but it now needs to be updated for a completely different set of economic and social circumstances."

Mr Byrne also talks about the centre, how it has moved in recent years and how this week "will really mark the beginning of when the battle for the centre ground begins in earnest". But for all those who have asked him what he rates as "the toughest question" (what is the alternative to the coalition?) there will be no immediate satisfaction. "The truth is we aren't going to lay out our manifesto and first budget this week because, before you get the policy right, you've got to get the politics right."

The specific ideas that will be presented during the week, short of a fresh approach to the economy or immigration, are already beginning to emerge. Yvette Cooper is expected to call for stalking to be made a specific offence. Mr Miliband will pledge to ban utility companies caught rigging their prices from renewing their franchise. Mr Byrne himself will suggest compulsory interviews for jobless families as a way to tackle "inter-generational unemployment".

Mr Miliband's aides insist the economy will be "front and centre" of the Labour strategy – but they will be picking holes in the coalition's policy, not the last government's. His assertion that the economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years has not worked could be interpreted as an admission of fault by the last Labour government, but it will be overshadowed by the accusation that the Tories are "addicted to austerity" and "stuck in the old way of doing things".

His aides do admit the listening exercise has exposed a "quiet crisis behind the front doors" of millions of ordinary people. Away from the public, noisy crises in the banking system and phone hacking, MPs' expenses and riots, voters are more concerned about paying their bills, their children's future and the irresponsibility of those at the top and bottom of society. "The last government did great things," one senior source said, "but we didn't do enough. We recognise there is a long way to go to repair our credibility on the economy."

Mark Fergusson, editor of the grassroots website LabourList, says the party is now in transition. "Ed Miliband is in a decent position, not fantastic, but not bad. He needs to say: 'I am Ed Miliband and there's more to me than beating my brother'."

The week ahead

Today What to look for A vote on changing party rules, including allowing non-members a say in policy and leadership contests.

Red Ed? David Miliband speaks at Movement for Change fringe, risking overshadowing the Labour leader

Monday What to look for Liam Byrne, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, warns that voters think Labour is on the side of "shirkers, not workers"

Red Ed? Ed Balls gives his first conference speech as Shadow Chancellor, under pressure to improve Labour's economic credibility

Tuesday What to look for Leader's speech – Ed's big moment to say how he's going to fill his blank page

Red Ed? The TUC's Brendan Barber speaks in the morning. Expect him to be clear about what the comrades expect from Labour

Wednesday What to look for Yvette Cooper and Sadiq Khan set out thinking on crime and justice

Red Ed? It all goes a bit hi-tech with a Twitter-based Q&A with Ed Miliband. With 2,000 unvetted members of the public, anything could happen.

Thursday What to look for Harriet Harman's rallying cry for activists to go back to their constituencies and wait for the general election

Red Ed? Will Ed remember all the words to "The Red Flag"?

Delegates' view: 'Miliband has made a good start, but now he has to be stronger on the attack'

Joe Anderson

Leader, Liverpool City Council

In May we contested 28 seats with the Lib Dems and took 26. Nationally, we started a bit slowly in Opposition, with the leadership campaign, but I am more than happy with Ed Miliband. We need to be much, much stronger in our attacks on government. The coalition is hell-bent on choking local government.

Rushanara Ali

Bethnal Green and Bow MP

The Labour Party today is different and better than a year ago. We've been listening and learning. Ed is providing a clear voice, pushing forward an agenda for change, taking on those who wield power without responsibility. We must continue to make a strong, credible alternative case for growth. Labour is back on the march.

Lord Knight

Labour peer

The party comes to conference concerned at how to best respond to growing economic problems and the social crisis created by the riots. Government economic policy is showing no sign of working and risks furthering social tension; we need to articulate a credible alternative that is fair and progressive. The internal wrangling of Refounding Labour needs to take second place to addressing these massive twin challenges. The party leadership needs to give the party the story to tell on the doorstep.

Alison McGovern

Wirral South MP

The criticism of the Tory deficit plan has now really got to come out. Ed Miliband has his critics, but he knows a thing or two about writing speeches. We'll just have to see what he knows about giving them.

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