Ed Miliband’s big speeches raise more questions than they answer. Now is the time for policy

The Labour leader is has an unusual mix of radicalism and caution. The temptation to say little is immense, given his poll lead; but voters will ask what he stands for

Share

Given Ed Miliband is not exactly burdened by policy detail, we know a great deal about how he will fight the next election. Miliband’s speech on the economy today is to be typical. Tonally, he will be evangelical in his hunger for change, while also reassuring in the persistent reiteration of his party’s broad appeal.

Once more, his speech will be studded with references to “One Nation”. Yet again, he will be vague on policy. Sometimes Miliband is closer to being a stimulating columnist than a politician. Most columnists, including this one, find it more congenial reflecting on big themes rather than the policy detail that arises from them.

Not surprisingly, given that he is a party leader, Miliband is also highly political, leaping on to fertile terrain as astutely as any of his election-winning predecessors. In today’s speech, he will make much of falling living standards. As with his other broad messages, he is on to something.

For the first time since the 1970s, price rises are becoming a big issue. Train commuters fume. All of us wait nervously for heating bills. Food prices are enough to cause a heart attack, even before anyone has consumed dodgy horse meat.

Aiming higher

As a bonus, George Osborne has given Miliband a dream slogan in the run-up to the election and a theme for today’s speech: falling living standards for the many and a tax cut for millionaires. Harold Wilson, who carried light ideological baggage, would have fought the next election on that message alone.

In theory, at least, Miliband aims higher. The head of his policy review, Jon Cruddas, will today launch a new project on social policy in association with the left-of-centre think-tank, the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR). When think-tanks and party leaderships dance together, the tunes tend to be longer-lasting, as Thatcher demonstrated after 1979 and, to a lesser extent, Tony Blair in 1997.

Cruddas was an admirer of David Cameron’s early language on the “Big Society” and notes that Labour lacks an equivalent critique on the role of the state. It is a reflection of the slow progress of the policy review that Cruddas has not given many interviews since being appointed to the post last year.

Now we get a new IPPR project that will address some of the big themes of our times, but without yet coming up with the answers. Its remit reflects the broad views of Cruddas and Miliband, that Cameron’s critique of the “big state” was important but overblown, ignoring ways that unconstrained markets also undermine “society”.

By contrast, both believe that it is possible and necessary to retain faith in the power of the state while guarding against unaccountable forms of state power. Somewhere in this rich, pivotal but evasively complex theme lurk policies in which markets are constrained in order to protect consumers and where the state does less. To take one example, Cruddas is a fan of devolving housing benefit budgets to local authorities, and giving councils the power to use some of the cash to build new homes.

So we can see the outlines of Labour’s pitch at the next election, the easy bit in relation to the attack on the Coalition’s policies, and hints of a policy agenda. But Miliband does not yet get anywhere near passing the “How?” test. 

There used to be a children’s science programme called How in which the presenter, Fred Dinenage, having outlined a scientific miracle, would raise his hand and declare with a deep voice “How?”. The guests on the programme had to explain how the miracles were achieved. Probably they were not entirely sure, but gave the impression always that they knew precisely how.

This is the art of opposition, too. If Cruddas seeks new mediating agencies apart from the state, what will they be? And how will power be transferred? Those are two questions that advocates of the “Big Society” could never fully answer.

With good cause, Miliband speaks up for the train passengers, but how would he cut fares? Does he propose a higher subsidy or tougher regulation? If he wants the companies to cut the fares, who will pay for much-needed improvements in services? If Cruddas devolves the housing benefit budget to councils, who will pay for the transition if some of the cash is spent on a house building programme? How?

Resisting temptation

It must be tempting to avoid the policy detail for as long as possible. Labour is well ahead in the polls. The party displays an impressive iron discipline, one characteristic from the New Labour era that Miliband has emphatically not rejected.

When I presented a recent programme for Radio 4 on Miliband, trying to secure some interviews was harder than negotiating an hour with the Pope. This is a challenge for journalists but an asset for an opposition party, as long as its leader does not become nervily addicted to a bland façade of unity as an alternative to some thorny policy detail.

Miliband is a deftly experienced reader of the rhythms of politics, an expertise that comes only from years of service close to the top. He might be young and look younger, but he has been fairly near the centre of power in opposition or government since the early 1990s, the first leader of the opposition for decades with sustained experience of intense internal battles, policy-making and elections; a very significant asset.

But his unusual combination of radical ambition and caution, arising from years of battles over policies and strategy, can also be an excuse for not making policy decisions at all. In my Radio 4 programme, Miliband joked that the “one thing former leaders are not telling me is to have more policies”.

I am not sure that that is the case. In a recent interview, Blair suggested that this was the year for policy development. The policies matter not just for defining an opposition but also as a route map for government. Believe it or not, what opposition leaders say they will and will not do determines more or less what happens if they win.

Miliband yearns to bring about change from the centre-left as fundamental as Thatcher’s from the right. He has told his senior adviser, Stewart Wood, that if he (Miliband) ever shows signs of moving away from this ambition, it is Wood’s job to put him back on track immediately. By Labour’s conference this year, he needs to answer some of the “How” questions, or else a dangerously large number of voters will conclude that he does not know which track he is on.

Steve Richards’ Radio 4 documentary on Ed Miliband is available on the BBC iPlayer

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Marketing Manager - Leicestershire - £35,000

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (CIM, B2B, MS Offi...

Marketing Executive (B2B and B2C) - Rugby, Warwickshire

£22000 - £25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A highly successful organisation wit...

SEN Coordinator + Teacher (SENCO)

£1 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Job Purpose To work closely with the he...

Research Manager - Quantitative/Qualitative

£32000 - £42000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Holly's review of Peterborough's Pizza Express quickly went viral on social media  

The response to my Pizza Express review has been overwhelming, and taught me a lot about journalism

Holly Aston
3 Donatella Versace and Audrey  

Errors and Omissions: We were having a blond moment – maybe two

John Rentoul
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week