When and how Her Majesty’s Opposition sets out its plans for government is always a vexed question. Say nothing, and you risk irrelevance; say too much and you are locked into potentially impractical commitments and left with little with which to wow the voters when the campaign proper finally starts.
With the next election still two years away, Ed Miliband will keep much of his powder dry a while yet. But pressure is building. Last week’s warning from Tony Blair about reverting to Labour’s old, electorally fruitless role as “the party opposing Tory cuts” was not only swiftly echoed by such warhorses as Peter Mandelson and David Blunkett. It also chimed with a growing sense among the Shadow Cabinet that – in a political climate dominated by the austerity debate, and an economic climate where every policy issue comes back to what the state can afford – simply saying “no” is not enough.
Thus, although Labour’s final tax and spending plans might not be fixed until autumn 2014, Mr Miliband will start preparing the ground now. As this newspaper reveals today, that means a shift in emphasis over the coming months, the shadow Chancellor’s repeated assertions that the Coalition’s economic strategy is not working giving way to a clearer sense of Labour’s post-election alternative. The focus will be on infrastructure investment, particularly housing. And the implication will be clear even before Mr Miliband spells it out: a Labour government will spend more public money than a Conservative one, borrowing more and reducing the deficit more slowly as a result.
The move is certainly a risky one. With many voters still blaming Labour for both the banking crisis and the ensuing debt crisis, the party’s primary problem is its economic credibility. For all its overall poll lead, on the subject of the economy David Cameron and George Osborne still comfortably outstrip Mr Miliband and Ed Balls.
A commitment to fewer cuts and more spending therefore risks playing into the hands of critics who claim that “Red Ed” is leading a same-old Labour Party keen to splash around money that the state cannot afford. Indeed, many assumed – for that very reason – that Mr Miliband would mimic Mr Blair’s successful 1997 strategy, buying the electorate’s economic trust with a promise to remain within the strictures of Tory spending plans, at least initially.
That the Labour leader has no such intention is, to a degree, simple tactics. He is, after all, unlikely to win in 2015 by preaching austerity; if voters are going to choose strict budgetary discipline, they will surely plump for the Tories, or perhaps even the Liberal Democrats. Furthermore, having consistently attacked the Coalition for an austerity programme branded “too far, too fast”, it would be devastatingly disingenuous then to commit to stick to it.
But there is something else, more interesting here, too. Mr Miliband has worked hard to construct a new political vision that is neither New Labour nor old. He began with the claim that the financial crisis exposed Britain’s need for a new consensus, and continued with a rather convoluted analysis dividing the private-sector economy into “producers” and “predators”. Only with a clearer sense of how such cerebrations translate into the practice of government will such threads become a coherent fabric.
And it is to the advantage of all – supporters and opponents alike – that they do. Britain’s economic challenges are pressing, and their consequences reach far beyond even the immediate need for growth. Right or wrong, Mr Miliband will at least offer voters a real choice in 2015. For that, he is to be applauded.