Ed Miliband, the candidate from the planet Zog

The Eds adopt the sluggish politics of the late Gordon Brown era, not his early dexterity
  • @johnrentoul

Triangulation is the art of positioning yourself between two known positions, in the way that Bill Clinton and Tony Blair placed themselves between the old left and the new right. Ed Miliband is now trying to quadrangulate. He wants to distance himself from the present government, the last government, and the government before that. We knew that he was against the Tories and we knew that he was against the evil Blair and all his works, but last week he repudiated his own side too. "We would put right a mistake made by Gordon Brown and the last Labour government," he said in Bedford, announcing that he wanted to restore the 10p starting rate of income tax which Brown abolished.

It was the most unconvincing bit of rebranding since Brown paid tribute in The Sun to Blair ("resolute, defiant and unyielding") just before he put on the blood-soaked crown in 2007. In trying to draw a line between himself and Brown, Miliband proved only that he is utterly and unalterably a Brownite.

Miliband was quite explicit in his speech about what he was up to: "Moving Labour on from the past and putting Labour where it should always have been, on the side of working people."

The 10p tax rate is a symbol, therefore, designed to do two things: to give Labour the appearance of being more firmly on the side of "working people"; and to distance Labour from the reputation of Gordon Brown. That reputation is not good. The voters do not think Brown "saved the world" in the banking crisis: he comes eighth out of eight prime ministers since 1964 in our ComRes poll.

A symbol is all that it is. There is no practical difference between the 10p rate and the coalition policy of raising the personal allowance, except that it is slightly less good at helping the low-paid, and needlessly complicated, as the Institute for Fiscal Studies pointed out.

The difference between Labour and the coalition is that Labour wants to tax the rich slightly more, by bringing in a new mansion tax on houses worth more than £2m. That is a policy borrowed from the Liberal Democrats, and Miliband and Ed Balls will draw their tactical dividing line by forcing the Lib Dems to abstain in a vote in the Commons in the next few weeks. But it, too, is a largely symbolic policy, raising a mere £2bn a year with none of the details worked out of how the valuation would be done.

Other policies that Miliband mentioned – keeping the 50p top tax rate, reversing the cuts in benefits and tax credits and cutting VAT – will expire before the election. The changes will have happened, and Labour won't promise to reverse them, while the VAT cut is a policy now, but by the time of the election Balls will accept that every tax cut must be paid for by tax rises or spending cuts elsewhere.

All this amounts to the politics of very small differences, but the way Miliband's announcement was handled last week was a classic Brownite operation. A "leaked" email said that the speech "won't have any new policies in it", which was picked up on some blogs and then used by David Cameron to make fun of Miliband at PMQs. So when the speech had new policies in it after all, journalists were surprised and wrote it up favourably. The Conservative Party, wrong-footed, thought that Miliband had been panicked by Cameron's mockery into putting in the 10p tax at the last moment, and could not decide how to respond to it. Eventually, the Tory line was that it was "a stunning admission of economic incompetence", which helped emphasise Miliband's repudiation of Brown's mistake.

In fact, the two Eds had been working on this surprise for a while, in typical Brownite fashion, calculating the odds and the angles. But this is the politics of the late Brown era, sluggish and unimaginative, not like the dexterity of the early Brown when he and Blair were working together and always a few steps ahead of the Conservatives. The early Brown would never have been trapped, for example, on the wrong side of George Osborne's cap on benefits at the level of average earnings.

The two Eds are late-period Brownites, right down to their play-acted front-bench chat in the Commons. Like Blair and Brown, they even disagree about Europe. Miliband is instinctively pro-European, making that slip in the Commons the other day about not wanting an in-out referendum; Balls is not, which is why he said last week that it would be "stupid" for Labour to be the "anti-referendum party" at the next election.

Miliband feels vindicated by the rapid fading of Cameron's barely-registered opinion-poll bounce after the his Europe speech. Balls sees the promise of a referendum as a slow-burning advantage for the Conservatives. Even if Miliband showed any sign of wanting to escape his Brownite inheritance, he cannot. Labour has been captured by late-Brown thinking and the Brownite apparatus.

Miliband's quadrangulation will not work: he can be anti-Tory and anti-New Labour, but not anti-Brown. Trying to be the candidate from outer space when he was a minister in Brown's cabinet is never going to convince anyone.