Red Ed is back. Or such, at least, is the verdict on the Labour leader’s party conference speech. It is not only his political opponents who discerned a “lurch to the left” in Brighton. His supporters said the same, albeit with approbation rather than opprobrium.
Ed Miliband was never going to escape such scrutiny. Between his famously Marxist father and his reliance on trade union support to win the leadership, the expectation that Red Ed would take the party back to its pre-Blair comfort zone has been in the air from the start.
He did try to play the soubriquet down. But he faced an insoluble dilemma. On one side was the accepted wisdom that elections are won from the centre – with Tony Blair’s serial victories as evidence. On the other was the charge that voters are apathetic precisely because all politicians seem the same. Meanwhile, the new leader needed to prove himself a break from the (electorally rejected) past.
So Mr Miliband took his time – and was lambasted for weakness, incoherence and vacillation from all corners of the political spectrum. No more. He has filled in the blanks with some eye-catching policies; and from the freeze on energy bills (a return to price controls) to the promise on house-building (salted with hints of compulsory purchase) they are undeniably interventionist, as anathema to New Labour as to the Tories or the Liberal Democrats.
All of which went down a storm in a hall full of the party faithful, many of whom viewed Mr Blair’s centrism as a Faustian pact. Even so, it is hardly a socialist revival. Indeed, the breathless hyperbole that has followed tells us as much about current politics as it does about Mr Miliband.
To the left of Mr Blair, he may be; but his premise of a more moral capitalism targets exactly that alliance of traditional, working-class supporters and like-minded middle-class liberals as New Labour did. Taken together with his acceptance of Treasury austerity, the benefits cap, and the need to reform the party’s union links, Mr Miliband is diluted to the palest of pinks by comparison with his genuinely red predecessors.
The Labour leader is not so much abandoning the middle ground as banking on it having shifted left. His tactics are shrewd enough: however misguided his policies, it will be difficult to refute them without appearing to defend high energy bills and unaffordable houses. As a strategy, it is less certain, though. The financial crisis prompted many predictions of the centre-right forced into retreat; five years on, the hopeful are still waiting.
Where Mr Miliband is right is that politics is no longer a simple choice between the unfettered market and fully nationalised industry, or between cradle-to-grave welfare and the freedom to fail. He may win points for his ideological integrity. And he may win points for his personal sincerity. But whether he will win an election is another question entirely.