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Editorial: Convince us, Ed

The time is right for Labour's leader to move beyond rhetoric and platitudes

This week it is the turn of the opposition party to hold its annual conference, sandwiched between the two governing parties.

Last week, Nick Clegg made a reasonable fist of his after-the-event justification of going into government with the Conservatives. The Liberal Democrats, for whom working in coalition is a principle, not just an expedient, had little choice in 2010. Since then, they have had no choice but to make a virtue of their original decision – hoping that the economy comes right and, crucially, that they share the credit, both of which are heroic assumptions.

Still, Mr Clegg had a neat triangulation: "Are you ready to trust Labour with your money again? And do you really think the Tories will make Britain fairer?"

Next week, we get to see if the Prime Minister can restore any sense of order and purpose to the rolling shambles of the Conservative Party. Its activists, and too many of its MPs, are excited by fantasies about Europe, including the possibility of a referendum on something or other. Or by slogans about tax cuts, or cutting through red tape, or shooting burglars, or tilting at windmills. By anything, in other words, apart from what the voters worry about, namely jobs, childcare, schools and hospitals. The shine has come off David Cameron. His light-touch, chairman-of-the-board style was unsuccessful, yet when he becomes involved in the detail, such as that of the NHS reforms, the results have been disastrous.

The Downing Street operation is weak and the Chancellor's high-flying reputation has sunk without trace. Next week, Mr Cameron has to persuade us that he has a mission beyond staying in office.

First, though, Ed Miliband has the chance to show that he is prime minister material after all. We are open-minded on that question, and remain to be convinced. He seems a geek and a nerd, and yet he has shown some toughness. His performances in the House of Commons have been effective against an inconsistent Prime Minister. His speech to last year's Labour conference, drawing a distinction between companies that are predators and ones that are producers, was clunky, but it struck a chord. At the very least, it marked a welcome change in tone from the uncritical worship of "business" of the New Labour years.

This year, the bar is higher. He has to try to close the gap between his personal ratings and those of his party, about which John Rentoul writes today. He really needs to shake off the persistent view held by two-thirds of voters, reported by a mischievous Conservative opinion poll yesterday, that "Labour elected the wrong brother as their leader". The only way to do that is to start to set out some of the big, bold themes of a Labour government. And in doing so, he has to show that he "speaks human", as his enthusiastic supporters claimed two years ago.

Rachel Reeves, the shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury, makes a good start in her interview with this newspaper today, getting serious about financial discipline in the public sector. When even the Scottish Labour leader, Johann Lamont, accepts that public services are not "free" – they have to be paid for from people's taxes – the time is clearly right for Mr Miliband to move beyond rhetoric and platitudes. No one expects detailed policies, but he has a big job this week in explaining how his party would promote social justice in a cold economic climate.

And we, the jury, are still out.