Ed Miliband returned from his summer holidays yesterday with no mean task ahead of him. Not because the shadow immigration minister was in the midst of a row with Tesco and Next, but because the Labour leader must answer more fundamental questions about what he, and his party, stand for.
This is not just the usual party-political sniping. When Andy Burnham last week called for Labour to “put its cards on the table”, he was just the latest insider to voice concerns that the message was not getting across. And while the shadow health secretary maintained that his remarks were not aimed at Mr Miliband personally, others are less circumspect. Former minister George Mudie, for example, described the Labour leader as “hesitant, confused and still trying to find himself”.
Nor is he helped by circumstances. While economic growth was wobbly, the Opposition had ammunition to hurl at the Coalition – and a public inclined to listen. Now the case against the Chancellor’s austerity is at best counter-factual and the Government is making hay blaming all current woes on its predecessor.
The latest polling is unequivocal. Were the vote tomorrow, Labour would still win it; but the party’s lead has more than halved over the past four months and is not where it should be at this point in the cycle. Mr Miliband himself still ranks lower than David Cameron in the public’s preferences. Against this background, the Labour leader has a make-or-break month ahead of him. He must use two high-profile speeches to turn things round.
At the Trades Union Congress, he must outline how he will disentangle Labour from the unions without losing their financial or political support. Get it wrong and either the party will be consumed by internal wrangling or voters’ worst fears of “Red Ed” will be confirmed. At the party conference later in September, the challenge is more diffuse but no less difficult. With the economy showing signs of life, Labour’s focus is shifting to living standards: Britain may be recovering, but most people are worse off. Alongside the breakdown of the problem, Mr Miliband needs to set out what he will do about it and thus how a Labour government would be different from a Conservative one.
He might take a look at his front bench too. With so many familiar faces, voters will struggle to believe the party has broken with the past, whatever Mr Miliband says. Given that the most visible shadow minister this summer has been Stella Creasy, a victim of internet trolling, new blood might also inject some dynamism into the rather detached current line-up.
It would be premature to write Mr Miliband off just yet. For all the easy caricatures, the Labour leader is not one to be taken lightly. He is, however, at a critical juncture. If he fails to regain the initiative next month he might not lose his job immediately, but he probably wouldn’t in 2015 either.