Andrew Grice: A sceptical public isn't going to listen until Ed says sorry

Inside Westminster
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The Independent Online

My abiding image of Ed Miliband's first year in his job is a speech he made in January.

Before he came to the important bit – an admission of some of Labour's mistakes in office – Sky News decided it was too boring and pulled the plug on its live coverage. Its presenter Colin Brazier told us he was "trying to digest, and really understand what, through the coded language, Ed Miliband was saying".

For some reason, the moment has stuck in my mind. It is symbolic. The Labour leadership believes it has said enough about its past record. But, like that Sky audience, I am not sure the public has really heard the party's "mea culpa".

That is a problem because the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats have persuaded voters that the previous Labour Government should take the blame for the deficit.

Labour insists Britain's deficit was caused by a global crisis, not by spending more on schools and hospitals here. But some senior Labour figures worry that the party's attempts to regain economic credibility are being hindered by a refusal to go further in admitting its past errors.

Although Labour has conceded that it got bank regulation wrong and didn't spend every penny wisely, it is reluctant to fall into a Tory trap by admitting it overspent, as that would only reinforce the view that Labour caused the deficit.

The "mea culpa question" has divided the Shadow Cabinet in Mr Miliband's first 12 months in his job. A review commissioned by Jim Murphy, the Blairite shadow Defence Secretary, admitted this week that the previous Government's spending on defence projects spiralled out of control.

"In beginning to develop future policy we have to be honest about the past," it said.

Some Labour MPs who voted for Ed Miliband a year ago because they judged him the "mea culpa candidate" are disappointed he has not admitted past mistakes more openly.

However, events may be easing the pressure. Until recently, the argument over who caused the deficit was at the forefront of the debate. Now the gathering global storm means that economics is to the fore. This has shifted the spotlight onto George Osborne's strategy. With fears of a double-dip recession rising, Labour's argument that the Coalition is cutting "too far, too fast" might even become the received wisdom.

And yet Labour still needs to define what it stands for and what its still largely unknown leader is about.

To be fair, since that false start in January, Mr Miliband's chosen three themes have all come good. His talk of a "squeezed middle", the millions struggling with falling living standards is now the political battleground. It helps Labour occupy what it calls the "new centre ground".

This is not, as some Blairites fear, an attempt by Mr Miliband to veer off to the left. It is based on his belief that the gap which matters is not between the top and the bottom but the top and the rest. This links into Miliband theme No. 2 – the need for responsibility both at the top (bankers, company bosses) and the bottom (welfare claimants, rioters).

His third theme is what Mr Miliband calls the "British promise". He argues that one consequence of the "quiet crisis" going on as hard-working families try to survive the squeeze, is that for the first time in a century, the next generation may not be better off than the current one.

To stop that happening, he will argue that the "rules of the game" must change. He will claim Britain took a wrong turn, not in the 13 years of Labour rule, but in the free-market economic orthodoxy of the last 30 years. He will say the Coalition is now repeating the mistakes – for example, regarding economic growth as separate from cutting the deficit rather than a means of reducing it (through higher tax revenues and lower benefit bills).

The theme of the Labour conference in Liverpool which starts tomorrow is "fulfilling the promise of Britain". Mr Miliband will deny David Cameron's post-riots claim that British society is "broken", argue there is nothing wrong with its people's values and say they are being held back by a broken economic system.

One Labour aide said yesterday: "Cameron thinks there is something wrong with the people. We say there is something wrong with the system."

In his speech on Tuesday, Mr Miliband's task will be to weave his three themes into a message that voters will hear, understand and buy.

It is not fair to describe his first year as a wasted one, but he could have moved more quickly.

He will argue that he has been listening to the people and is now ready to signpost his new economic settlement, outlining policies to help young people and tackle "irresponsibility" at the top and bottom of society.

I suspect we will know quite a bit more about Mr Miliband and his Labour mission by Tuesday evening. And not before time.

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