It has been quite a week for Labour. Having correctly identified that his party was adrift of public opinion on two crucial points – the economy and welfare – Ed Miliband faced a choice. He could attempt to regain the electorate’s trust, filling in some policy blanks in the process. Or he could risk his far-from-convincing, mid-term poll lead dwindling to nothing.
He chose the former. First, Ed Balls stood up on Monday and admitted, notwithstanding the usual bluster about George Osborne’s failing economic strategy, that Labour would stick within the Coalition’s austere Whitehall spending plans. Then, yesterday, Ed Miliband set out his vision for a benefits system that costs the state less and encourages work more. The combined message was loud and clear: Labour is not “soft on welfare” and it can be trusted with the taxpayers’ purse strings.
On public spending, the triumph is one of realism. With the economy showing signs of life, it was time to start looking forward rather than back. And for all Mr Balls’ relentless rejection of the Coalition analysis of Britain’s fiscal woes, he could not dodge the fact that, as Labour’s Liam Byrne so helpfully put it when he left the Treasury, “there is no money”.
The shift in the party leadership’s position on welfare is more far-reaching in its implications. Mr Balls prepared the ground with his pledge to put an end to winter fuel allowance payments to rich pensioners. The £100m-odd saving for the Exchequer is small beer. Nor is the move convincing proof of the shadow Chancellor’s new-found discipline. What it does do, though, is put paid to the commitment to universal benefits that has long been central to Labour’s view of the state.
Yesterday, Mr Miliband went further still. He was clear that a return to child benefit for all is unaffordable; he talked of a cap on the total cost of “structural” benefits – that is, those unaffected by the economic cycle; and he hinted at a contributory system of out-of-work entitlements whereby those who paid more in got more out.
All of which is a far cry from what might have been expected from a leader caricatured as “Red Ed”, and leaves but a hair’s-breadth between Labour and its Conservative and the Liberal Democrat opponents in several key areas. It also leaves Mr Miliband open to charges of disingenuousness. After all, he has spent three years decrying a Coalition austerity policy that he now acknowledges is, in large part, unavoidable; and he vociferously opposed a child benefit cap that he now says he will keep. Any trust to be gained from Labour’s new-found realism might, then, be just as swiftly lost to the sense of a leader blowing in the wind.
Such criticism is unduly harsh, however. Mr Miliband might be applauded as much as chastised for responding to voters’ priorities and there is much to be said for attempts to answer modern Britain’s questions from both sides of the political spectrum. Indeed, the past week has revealed the Labour leader to be a more interesting politician than he was before, his tactical manoeuvring woven carefully into a broader vision of responsibility and social fairness that merits a hearing.
The issue now is how, with so much conceded, Mr Miliband can find a compelling reason to vote Labour rather than Tory or Liberal Democrat in 2015. He concluded his speech yesterday with a string of contrasts between himself and David Cameron. The distinctions were largely presentation rather than substance, though. The Labour leader has been bold in identifying his party’s weaknesses and in trying to tackle them. But a fuzzy sense that he will do much the same thing as his opponents, just more kindly, will not suffice.