Now's the time for Miliband to show what he's made of

Inside Westminster: The more people see of Ed, the more they like him. The more they see of Cameron, the less...

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Indy Politics

Question: how do you upset Ed Miliband? Answer: describe Labour as "Britain's third most interesting party." I know, because I have done it. The statement happens to be true, but it hurts – a painful reminder for a party that had 13 years in power is the only one of the big three not enjoying it now.

In the coming week, Mr Miliband has a chance to make his party and himself look more interesting. The autumn party conferences now get less TV coverage but still offer a chance to reach a largely indifferent electorate. Mr Miliband will use Labour's Manchester conference, which starts tomorrow, to tell us more about himself and the kind of country he wants his children to grow up in.

Two years after he beat his brother to the Labour leadership, he remains largely unknown to the voters. He doesn't enjoy doing the personal stuff and would much rather talk about political ideas. But he knows the next general election will almost certainly boil down to two judgements: a choice between two leaders and which party is trusted most on the economy.

That is a worry for Labour, as it suggests that its typical 10-point opinion poll lead over the Conservatives could easily melt away in the heat of an election battle. Some Labour MPs fear that, even if the Government's economic strategy has failed, the Tories may still offer a strong "let us finish the job" message on the deficit, while Labour struggles to convince voters it can be trusted in a continuing age of austerity.

If you were designing an identikit prime minister, you would not come up with Mr Miliband. To make matters worse for Labour, you might well design someone like David Cameron. In 2010, Mr Cameron – just about – passed the "can you imagine this man on the doorstep of No 10?" test. Mr Miliband would fail it today.

Indeed, when the Conservatives plotted their strategy ahead of the conference season, the Prime Minister gave his party the nod to exploit what its sees as Mr Miliband's weaknesses – that he looks a bit odd and is left-wing. "We don't have to scream and shout; we just have to reinforce what people already think," smiled one Tory aide.

This is a problem for Labour, but also an opportunity.

It plans to define Mr Miliband before the Tories succeed in painting him their preferred deep red. Labour also intends to get its retaliation in first by targeting Mr Cameron. He might look the part as Prime Minister, but Labour will portray him as not knowing what he wants to do with the job.

"Deep down he believes that the country should be run by people like him," claims a Labour aide. "That is the sum of his political project." Labour will dismiss Mr Cameron's "hug-a-huskie," "hug-a-hoodie" and "I love the NHS" phases as mere branding exercises.

In contrast, Labour will try to turn Mr Miliband's background as the son of a Marxist academic to his advantage, portraying him as someone with values, principles and a strength of purpose.

The Labour leader will be billed as a man who wants to change Britain. In his conference speech next Tuesday, he will build on his call a year ago for a more "responsible capitalism," outlining measures to encourage good business behaviour while stamping out the bad.

Meanwhile, Mr Cameron will be attacked as a man who wants to run Britain but has shown he cannot be "the change" the country was crying out for in 2010 when it turned its back on Labour.

The Labour hope is that this line of attack will dovetail neatly with its constant refrain that Mr Cameron and George Osborne are "out of touch" with ordinary people. As one Miliband aide put it: "Being born to rule doesn't mean you are any good at it."

No surprise, then, that in an interview yesterday, Mr Miliband reminded us that he went to a comprehensive school. The public will hear a lot more about how his parents fled the Nazis, even though the Westminster village has already seen that movie several times.

For now, Mr Cameron outscores Mr Miliband when voters are asked about different leadership qualities, although Labour insists the gap is closing (as it is on economic competence too). "People don't hate Ed; they just don't know him," one adviser argues. "They are more interested in him than they were a year ago. The more they see of him, the more they like him. The more they see of David Cameron, the less they like him."

We are going to be seeing a lot of the both of them. We are almost halfway through this five-year parliament but soon we will be nearer to the next election than the last. From now on, it gets personal.