Andrew Grice: Ed Miliband needs to come up with some eye-catching ideas fast

Inside Politics

When Ed Miliband returns from his two-week paternity leave on Monday, he will have a lot of work to do – and quickly. It may be a long haul until the next general election, but party leaders are often defined in the voters' eyes in their first 100 days in office.

A good test for a leader is: what would the public say if they had to name one fact about him? In his early days, people might have said of William Hague: "Silly baseball cap" (bad news). Iain Duncan Smith? "Croaky voice" (can't see him in Number 10). David Cameron? "Hugged a huskie" (looks corny now, very effective then). Neil Kinnock? "Waffly" (negative). Tony Blair? "Scrapped Clause 4" (new, positive).

Ed Miliband? Well, 57 days into his leadership, it would have to be "knifed his brother" (untrustworthy, or strong, ruthless leadership? More bad than good). The new leader needs to rewrite the script. He has got to stand for something else. Putting it bluntly, he has got to stand for something.

It's not enough to proclaim the death of New Labour and talk about a "new generation" or "Generation Ed" – as his followers call it. The "new politics" market has been cornered by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, who can hardly be dismissed as old. Nor can Britain's first Coalition since the Second World War. Even allowing for his paternity leave, Mr Miliband has made a relatively slow start. The words "vacuum" and "drift" are being muttered by more Labour MPs than he would wish. And it's not just sour grapes by people who supported his brother. A few of them still dream of ousting Ed and installing David before the general election, but the overwhelming majority of Labour folk want to move on and see the new leader succeed.

However, they want some fireworks: not an A-Z policy guide, but some direction and signposts in neon lighting. One loyalist frontbencher told me he could remember only three recent Labour contributions on BBC Radio's Today programme – from John Reid, Peter Mandelson and Charlie Falconer, the old generation now in the House of Lords.

The Shadow Cabinet finds it hard to make waves. In government, ministers fight to keep the media at bay. In opposition, shadow ministers have to earn attention. "No one is interested in us," sighs a senior shadow minister. "It's all about the Coalition." Another groans, "We need some marching orders. That has to come from the top."

The "Red Ed" label that the Tories hope the media will hang round the Labour leader's neck is a caricature. He will live it down but in doing so may need to disappoint some of them who voted for him in the party leadership election. "Unless he learns to lead the party, not just comfort it, he won't get heard by the voters," says a senior Labour MP. "His natural caution makes him look insubstantial and uncertain."

True, it is early days. Mr Miliband will be aware of all these problems, and has spent part of the past fortnight plotting his solutions. He will address Labour's national policy forum next weekend, stressing his commitment to party reform. That could spell the end of the electoral college, which allowed Ed to win the leadership on the backs of the trade unions even though his brother won a majority among MPs and party members. (By the way, Ed rather than David would still have won on the simple "one member, one vote" ballot that we may see in future leadership contests.)

More importantly, Ed Miliband will look outwards to the voters. He privately admires the way Mr Cameron used a wholesale review of Tory policies when he became leader to map out his direction of travel. So he will set up reviews in key policy areas, possibly involving outside experts.

The Labour leader will position his party as the champion of the "squeezed middle". His opposition to cuts in child and housing benefits and £9,000-a-year university fees has been carefully chosen. He will resist demands from some Labour MPs to fight every spending cut. Some wanted to condemn the welfare shake-up proposed by Mr Duncan Smith, forgetting that it was extending a "rights and responsibilities" policy begun by Labour. That would have put Labour on the wrong side of public opinion. Instead, Douglas Alexander, the shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, adopted an intelligent stance that will be replicated across the piece: accepting the Coalition's broad approach while leaving room to oppose the most "unfair" decisions (such as the arbitrary 10 per cent cut in housing benefit for people who have been on Jobseeker's Allowance for a year).

The Coalition may have brilliantly set up the case for cuts and hung the blame for the deficit round Labour's neck, but the hard task of making the cuts look "fair" still lies ahead.

The crass "you've never had it so good" remarks by Lord Young of Graffham, which cost him his job as Mr Cameron's enterprise adviser yesterday, show the dangers of looking out of touch in an age of austerity. It offered Labour a ray of hope that it may be able to portray the Cameron-Osborne-Clegg team as remote from the "squeezed middle".

His friends say you underestimate Ed Miliband at your peril – as David Miliband , Nick Brown and Ed Balls found out. The Labour leader hopes that another David and another Nick are about to learn the same lesson. But he needs to get cracking on Monday.