The time has come for Labour’s leader to take a more pro-business tone

The need for Mr Miliband to project a clear economic policy has become urgent

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The Independent Online

Who would have thought a bacon sandwich could inflict so much damage?

Ed Miliband’s personal poll ratings, never that impressive, have plumbed new depths after the European and local elections, the photographs of him struggling with a savoury snack, and the insensitive image of him posing with a copy of The Sun, for which he later apologised.

According to the surveys, half of voters think that Mr Miliband should be replaced as Labour leader, even more than say the same of Nick Clegg, who at least has the defence that he is in government.

Some of the disappointment with Mr Miliband has clearly been driven by an almost universally hostile press, including his “friends” at The Sun, all too happy to fasten on to even the slightest mistake or bungled photo-op to build up a narrative of a “gaffe-prone”, “geeky” Labour leader.

In this respect they are merely reverting to vicious type, visiting upon Mr Miliband the kind of abuse they meted out to Gordon Brown, Neil Kinnock and, for some of the time, Tony Blair. It is difficult to imagine any new, alternative Labour leader – Mr Milband’s brother David, Chuka Umunna, Ed Balls – being spared the treatment.

Of course, Mr Miliband made things needlessly difficult for himself by not knowing who he was campaigning for in Swindon and not knowing the price of groceries, but he has been unfairly treated nonetheless. There is no evidence to suggest any great boost would be delivered by a new face at the top, and a leadership election could hardly be worse timed.

None of which means that all is well with Labour. As the economy recovers, and the voters seem prepared to give the Coalition the credit for that, the need for Mr Miliband and his party to project a clear, credible economic policy grows more urgent. The “cost of living crisis” campaign has found some resonance with the public, but it is, if anything, merely a statement of the symptoms of a deeper problem; how the UK can make its competitive way in an ever tougher world – or the “global race”, as the Prime Minister calls it. On that, Labour has been more or less silent, for all its detailed policies and pledges.

Indeed, many of them suggest that Labour has an anti-business agenda, and that the party doesn’t understand how companies work. Bashing our unlovely utilities may make Labour and the voters feel better in some superficial way, but it is neither sensible, nor a substitute for a coherent industrial strategy.

Mr Miliband and his colleagues seldom talk about raising productivity, or fostering the new technological enterprises of the future that will help increase wages and generate jobs and the prosperity to pay for decent public services. No one is saying that it is easy to frame such a policy agenda; but Labour seems to have ignored it, hoping perhaps that it will go away. This is not the approach to be expected of a party preparing seriously for government.

The suspicion is that Mr Miliband and his team are playing safe, pursuing a sort of “core vote” strategy, not taking risks that might alienate the supporters it has, and hoping that the vagaries of the electoral system will translate a vote share of around 35 per cent into a slim majority in the House of Commons.

Labour’s one-point lead over the Conservatives is too slim to satisfy Mr Miliband. There is close to another year in which the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats can regroup, and in which the economy seems likely to improve and edge closer to normality.