Editorial: Time for Mr Miliband to fill in some of the blanks

Labour has passed the early tests. Now it must prove itself a credible alternative

Related Topics

The Labour Party begins its conference in Manchester this weekend in better shape than most pundits – and some of its leading figures – had assumed would be possible after the trauma of defeat two years ago. In fact, most polls suggest a double-digit lead over the Conservatives, more than enough to secure a sizeable overall majority at the next election.

On some levels, at least, such a lead is well deserved. Labour has shown a surprising degree of discipline and unity, confounding expectations of a lapse into near civil war after the 2010 election. And at last year's conference, Ed Miliband stole a march in the important battle of ideas by focusing on "responsible capitalism", a theme perhaps even more relevant now than when he first spoke of it. His shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, also claims some vindication – justified or not – for his warnings that the Coalition's stringent economic policies risked a second recession.

Look behind the headline figures, however, and the polls suggest the lead over the Tories is largely down to an anti-Coalition mood, rather than an actively pro-Labour one. Indeed, there is not yet much evidence of great enthusiasm for Mr Miliband's party. And even the double-dip recession that partly explains Labour's current popularity is a potential trap.

Not only is it probable that the economy will be growing again by the time of the election, taking some of the sting out of the current anger at the Coalition; more immediately, the economic gloom has narrowed the differences between Labour and the Coalition. In a pre-conference interview with this newspaper, Mr Balls insisted, with good cause, that he cannot allow shadow cabinet colleagues to pledge future spending increases, given the uncertainties over the economy. How, then, would Labour differ from the Coalition, if both sides are similarly constrained?

While Mr Miliband and Mr Balls are right to argue that it is too early to spell out their precise tax and spend policies for the 2015 election, they do need to provide a few more details. Without them, slightly contradictory messages fill the vacuum: the deputy leader, Harriet Harman, has suggested that Labour will not be tied to the Coalition's spending plans at the next election, even as Mr Balls is ruling nothing out.

The need for more detail also applies to Mr Miliband's vague advocacy of a more responsible capitalism. Amid the general rhetoric, there is little sense of how such responsibility might be brought about, or what he envisages the government's role to be. In fairness, these are complex questions with no easy answers. But if Mr Miliband is to live up to the credit he has accrued for asking them, then he must now start to sketch out some answers. And the same might be said of his concept of "predistribution" – a characteristically inaccessible term crying out for policies that voters can understand.

More than anything else, Mr Miliband must start to tackle the continuing uncertainty about his leadership. In many ways, he has been bold and astute in his chosen themes; at Prime Minister's Questions, he is often effective, and, so far at least, he has shown a steely calm when under fire. But his personal ratings remain well below those of his party, and, in an increasingly presidential culture, voters still struggle to see him as a prime minister. For the next few days, he has the political stage largely to himself. He must use the opportunity.

It is Labour's good fortune to be the only real option for voters disillusioned with the two parties of the Coalition. But with such luck comes increased scrutiny. Labour has passed some of the early tests of opposition. Now Mr Miliband and his colleagues must meet the much bigger challenge of becoming a credible alternative government.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Project Implementation Executive

£18000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Chiropractic Assistant

£16500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Chiropractic Assistant is needed in a ...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Account Executive - Midlands

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They work with major vehicle ma...

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company provides coaching ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
With an eye for strategy: Stephen Fry’s General Melchett and Rowan Atkinson’s Edmund Blackadder  

What Cameron really needs is to turn this into a khaki election

Matthew Norman
An Italian policeman stands guard as migrants eat while waiting at the port of Lampedusa to board a ferry bound for Porto Empedocle in Sicily. Authorities on the Italian island of Lampedusa struggled to cope with a huge influx of newly-arrived migrants as aid organisations warned the Libya crisis means thousands more could be on their way  

Migrant boat disaster: EU must commit funds to stop many more dying

Alistair Dawber
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

Let the propaganda wars begin - again

'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

Japan's incredible long-distance runners

Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

Tom Drury: The quiet American

His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

Beige to the future

Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own