Leading article: Mr Miliband's two big issues: the economy and himself


Yesterday marked a bitter-sweet anniversary for Ed Miliband. It was the date of his election, by the narrowest of margins, as leader of the Labour Party; but it was a victory also marred by accusations of fratricide. That these accusations are still heard is a measure of the task Mr Miliband continues to face one year on. At this week's conference in Liverpool, both it and its leader still have a mountain to climb.

Polls give Labour at most a single-digit lead over the Conservatives, despite an economy growing more slowly than projected, unemployment and inflation rising faster, and a programme of austerity and spending cuts that would doom even the most popular government. A credible Opposition should be much further ahead. The trouble is voters' scepticism about Labour's economic competence. It remains dogged by the 2008 crisis.

A separate difficulty relates specifically to Mr Miliband. Fewer than half of all Labour voters say that Mr Miliband is turning out to be a good leader, and more than a third say they do not know what he stands for. This is not a good result for a leader who has been in place for a year. True, for much of that time the eurozone and the Arab Spring have dominated the news to the point where anyone not in power has found it hard to make a mark. But the Labour leader has to catch voters' attention in good time if his party is to have a chance at the next election.

In this respect, Mr Miliband's proposal to reduce the ceiling for university tuition fees to £6,000 a year is on the right lines. It is eye-catching. It targets a particular constituency (students and their families) and capitalises on disillusionment with a particular party (the Liberal Democrats), and Mr Miliband has ensured that it looks economically responsible, by saying where he will find the money. It is possible to question the concept – universities, already complaining about ever-changing rules, might be less than overjoyed – but the politics and the economics look sound.

In the three-and-a-half years that remain until the next election, however, Mr Miliband is going to need a lot more policies where that came from. This can be but one point in a new party manifesto. Labour will stand or fall on the much, much bigger issue of economic competence.

This is partly why there has been such a clamour for Mr Miliband to apologise for what are now seen as the errors of his predecessor. But he is right to be wary; the economy is not Iraq or even bank regulation. Admitting such a macro-mistake would play into the Government's hands. It would also risk sounding hollow, while Ed Balls, Gordon Brown's erstwhile chief lieutenant, remained shadow Chancellor.

But the clinching argument is that waiting is to Mr Miliband's advantage. A time will come, if the UK economy does not improve, when voters start to blame this government for financial mismanagement, rather than the last. Once the Coalition starts citing global factors, rather than the policies of the last Labour government, Mr Miliband's point will have been made for him. With no prospect of that happening this week, he must exploit his days in the limelight to stand up, be heard – and convince Labour voters once and for all that they really did choose the right Miliband.

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