That Ed Miliband has suffered a torrid start to 2012 is not especially surprising. Questions about his leadership were surfacing at the end of the last year and there was no reason why the Christmas break should have changed the dynamic. This week, the Labour leader tried to answer those questions. He was only partially successful.
Some of the criticisms Mr Miliband faces are more easily dismissed than others. He has noisy opponents both in the media and beyond who will never accept a Labour leader who is more left of centre than Tony Blair. They would still make a noise, even if Mr Miliband had all the charisma and poise of a mesmeric leader. But there are also doubts that go beyond ideological concerns, not least his sluggish performance in opinion polls.
One of the reasons behind his low ratings would undermine any Labour leader at this point in the political cycle. At least partly unfairly, voters blame the previous government for the current economic crisis, and still give the Coalition the benefit of the doubt. In fairness, Mr Miliband cannot be culpable for the thorny context in which he acquired the leadership, after a traumatic election defeat in the midst of economic gloom. And, since then he has made some bold moves, on phone hacking, for example, and on smaller internal matters, such as scrapping elections for his Shadow Cabinet. On economic policy, too, his judgement that the Coalition was cutting too deeply and speedily may yet be vindicated, albeit by an unforeseen crisis in Europe.
But Mr Miliband has failed to deliver an alternative economic message with clarity and conviction. His problem is, to some degree, stylistic: he can be an embarrassingly awkward communicator, a novice politician still developing a public voice. But the fuzziness arises also from a fear of making genuinely tough choices, highlighted by the equivocal message delivered during last year's public sector pension strikes.
More broadly, a vast, unwieldy policy review is taking place at a time when Labour needs to be conveying a clearer sense of how it will adapt to an economic background where public spending is tight.
The easy bit is to recognise that there will be little money to spend, as Mr Miliband did in this week's big speech. Setting out a vision for a more nimble, efficient state, however, is more challenging. It is also a prerequisite of the detailed policies to be unveiled in the build-up to the election. Instead – in a speech that was, absurdly, billed as the most important for Labour since Tony Blair proposed the abolition of Clause IV in 1994– Mr Miliband simply reiterated his broader position and proposed a relatively trivial change to the winter fuel allowance.
The gap between the billing and the delivery highlights another problem. Cosseted for a long time as a special adviser, Mr Miliband appears to have little sense of the rhythms of leadership, particularly the ability to seem relevant and significant when, in reality, Opposition is a largely powerless place. He has more experience than his youthful appearance suggests, but it is clear from Mr Miliband's performance that he is no political artist.
The stakes are high indeed. There is a strong case to be made against the Coalition's policies, but it is not being put as effectively as it should be. The fault is not by any means Mr Miliband's alone. In fact, he has shown clearer signs that he is developing an alternative vision than the critics in his party allow. But, in policy terms, his approach is still too vague and urgently needs definition. This week's speech was far from game-changing. Mr Miliband can only acquire a convincing public voice when he has decided what he wants to say.