Andrew Grice: Once again, Miliband forges ahead – then blows it

Inside Westminster

Related Topics

George Galloway was uniquely qualified to mobilise the anti-mainstream party vote in the Bradford West by-election. While Labour will be tempted to dismiss his incredible victory as a one-off, the result tells us something important about Labour. As well as being a "Galloway factor" and a "Bradford factor," there must surely have been a "Miliband factor" too.

Ironically, Mr Miliband has had a good fortnight. His response to the Budget, never an easy wicket for an Opposition leader, was seen as his best Commons performance. He played his hand well this week on the Conservatives' funding scandal and what he rightly called the "shambles" of the Government's response to the threatened strike by fuel tanker drivers.

Labour's surprise by-election setback is part of a pattern. Mr Miliband gets himself into good positions and then blows it. He is in danger of becoming a "one step forward, two steps back" leader. "He does a brilliant run through the other team's defence but doesn't shoot and then passes the ball back to our own defence," says one Labour frontbencher.

He shines – bravely, for example, taking on Rupert Murdoch's empire last summer – but then goes dark. In January, Labour angered the trade unions by accepting the need for public-sector pay restraint. But Mr Miliband didn't follow it through; he disappeared off the radar again. Such big messages need to be delivered a thousand times to cut through to the public. They need to be said as often as Labour accuses the Conservatives of being "out of touch". Attacking the Tories is the easy bit; Labour needs to do a lot more of the hard stuff.

The Labour leader is too cautious. He gives the impression of knowing where he needs to be but agonising about how to get there, consulting widely and trying to find a compromise that keeps everyone happy. Inevitably, what the public sees at the end of this tortuous process is a diluted version of what he really thinks.

There is a danger that Labour learn the wrong lesson from the Bradford by-election. Mr Galloway's Respect Party claims people want a stronger line than Labour offers against the Coalition's spending cuts. Such an approach might make Labour activists feel good but it wouldn't do the party much good. Its problem is that voters see it as addicted to spending; until it can convince them otherwise, it will not offer a credible alternative to the Government.

Mr Miliband knows it but doesn't show it. His words on the economy are too coded. He does have a long-term plan: a future Labour government would cut total spending but share out the cake more fairly through "switch spending". For example, Labour would cut the pay of senior public servants to allow rises for those at the bottom.

The problem is that this is eclipsed by the five-point plan, including a £12bn temporary cut in VAT, championed by Ed Balls, the powerful shadow Chancellor, who won't stop talking about need for a short-term stimulus because he is convinced George Osborne's cuts strategy is failing. Some Labour folk think Mr Balls may be right tactically but is unwittingly weakening Mr Miliband's long-term strategy because all the voters hear is Labour wanting to spend more (again). Being seen as "same old Labour" means the party cannot profit from the mistakes of the "same old Tories".

Labour has got to show it has changed. Above all, Mr Miliband knows he has to persuade the public Labour can be trusted with their money. Events offer a chance to convince voters that Labour is not in the pockets of its union paymasters.

Tory attacks on Labour over the tanker drivers' dispute have been crude and opportunist but will strike a chord with some voters. Mr Miliband cannot ignore them. He will have to take a tough line and shouldn't put it off.

The Tory funding controversy means there will never be a better chance to clean up the way political parties are funded. Mr Miliband should go on the offensive by accepting the proposal from Sir Christopher Kelly's Committee on Standards in Public Life for union members to "opt in" to paying the political levy to Labour rather than having to opt out. The unions won't like it but Labour should tell them that a wider prize is at stake.

Last year Mr Miliband backed down over plans to cut the unions' 50 per cent share of the vote at Labour's annual conference, fearing defeat on the issue at the conference itself. He may be tempted to fudge the issue again this year but should go for it.

The Labour leader needs to be bold, to surprise people and grab their attention. The party doesn't have to divorce the unions, but current events offer him the chance to show they do not run the party. He should take it.

I suspect Mr Miliband knows what needs to be done. The time has come for him to answer the big question: can he do it?

React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey/ South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Trainee Consultant - Surrey / South West London

£22000 per annum + pension,bonus,career progression: Ashdown Group: An establi...

Ashdown Group: Recruitment Consultant / Account Manager - Surrey / SW London

£40000 per annum + realistic targets: Ashdown Group: A thriving recruitment co...

Ashdown Group: Part-time Payroll Officer - Yorkshire - Professional Services

£25000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful professional services firm is lo...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Nicola Sturgeon could have considerable influence over David Cameron in a hung parliament  

General Election 2015: What if Cameron were to end up in hock to the SNP?

Steve Richards
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living
Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

Homeless people keep mobile phones

A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before