Ed Miliband is really getting into his stride. It is a rare thing for the Opposition to set the political agenda for six straight weeks. But since the party conference promise to freeze energy prices, both utility bills specifically, and the Labour-identified “cost of living crisis” generally, have rarely been out of the headlines, taking some of the pep out of a Prime Minister who might otherwise have been basking in the reflected glory of incipient economic recovery.
Mr Miliband was pressing his advantage once again yesterday. In a much-trailed speech at London’s Battersea Power Station, he characterised David Cameron’s claims that growth is the key to improving living standards as further evidence of an out-of-touch Prime Minister “who thinks we can detach our national economic success from the success of Britain’s families and businesses”. Amid sideswipes at energy bosses and payday lenders, he talked about creating a “different kind of economy” that works for all, not just those at the top. And he set out the details of plans to give tax breaks to companies that pay the newly raised “living wage”.
Even as commentators mutter about a lurch to the left and economists tear their hair at the prospect of a return to price controls, the electorate’s response to such blandishments is much as it usually is in times of recession. After five years of grind, and of watching inflation take ever larger bites out of wages, voters have the evils of big business firmly in their sights and are willing to entertain all manner of political gambits to bring them into line.
The surprise is that the widespread appeal of Mr Miliband’s individual plans is not translating into a major boost in support. A ComRes poll for The Independent last week spelt it out in no uncertain terms: although an impressive 80 per cent of people are in favour of Mr Miliband’s promise to freeze energy bills, only 41 per cent believe that he will actually do it.
Here, then, is the crux of Labour’s problem. As a political strategy, the “cost of living crisis” has much to recommend it. As soon as the economy started showing signs of recovery, the Opposition needed a swift replacement for the “too far, too fast” criticism of deficit reduction which had formed its central theme thus far. The claim that, even with a return to growth, the Coalition is still failing the majority of Britons is a compelling one. Furthermore, shifting the focus on to the future shape of the economy created an opportunity to distract attention from the past – the financial crisis, and the uncertainty that hangs over Labour’s ability to manage the economy as a result.
With the race to the 2015 election well and truly under way, Mr Miliband has done a fine job of setting out his stall. But it is, as yet, far from clear whether the British people trust him, or his party, enough to buy.