Editorial: A gamble from not-so-red Ed Miliband

The combined message of the two Ed's recent speeches comes across loud and clear: On welfare and the economy, Labour can be trusted to govern Britain

Share

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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Data Warehouse Developer - (Oracle, PL/SQL, ETL, OLAP, B

£65000 - £70000 per annum: Harrington Starr: One of the global leaders in fina...

Deputy Education Manager

Negotiable: Randstad Education Sheffield: Deputy Education Manager (permanent ...

Science Teacher Urgently required for October start

£6720 - £33600 per annum: Randstad Education Nottingham: We are currently recr...

ICT Teacher

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Group: We are looking for an outstandi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Scottish independence: ‘I am as British and European as Scottish’

Sir Menzies Campbell
 

We should applaud Mary Berry for her bold views on assisted dying

Chloe Hamilton
'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

James Frey's literary treasure hunt

Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

The big names to look for this fashion week

This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
Al Pacino wows Venice

Al Pacino wows Venice

Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

Neil Lawson Baker interview

‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering