The revelations of the former spin-doctor Damian McBride could not have come at a more inopportune time. As delegates flock to Labour’s autumn conference, Ed Miliband faces the challenge of laying to rest critics’ charges of weakness, at the same time as reclaiming the political initiative from a Government riding high on recent signs of economic life. He must also pull off a tricky balancing act over the party’s trade union links. Yet the memoirs of Gordon Brown’s self-confessed attack-dog threaten to eclipse all.
From the strategic leakings, to the briefings against his own side, to the Blairite cabinet ministers brought down, such vivid reminders of the self-absorbed in-fighting of a government in which both Mr Miliband and his shadow Chancellor played a prominent part are unlikely to incline the public Labour’s way. But even before Mr McBride’s unhelpful contribution, the Labour leader had his work cut out. Months of internal strife have left him sorely exposed. Nor did his lacklustre performance at the Trades Union Congress two weeks ago improve matters. This week’s conference may be his last chance to regain control.
With the economy on the up, and the mantra of “too far, too fast” reduced to a counter-factual, Mr Miliband hopes to shift the focus on to living standards. Growth means little if the majority continue to be worse off, he – not unreasonably – points out. To many, the message rings painfully true. But polls suggest that two-thirds of voters blame Labour for their relative penury. So even if the Opposition can change the terms of the debate, it is far from assured that it will win it – particularly given the Coalition’s capacity for defensive manoeuvres, of which this week’s school lunch giveaway from Nick Clegg is a prime example.
The trade union problem is no easier to solve. Between Mr Miliband’s softly-softly TUC speech, and the report from Lord Collins this week, it is clear that the Labour leader plans to play the issue down. There is some sense in the move; by backing off over voting rights, proposals to end automatic affiliation stand more chance of being passed at the special conference in March. Even so, the accusations of capitulation cannot be dismissed entirely.
For all the tactical value of slow and steady, Mr Miliband must not lose sight of the main game. If he wants to create a party of mass membership, as he claims, then a system in which union bosses control half of conference votes and a third of those at leadership elections cannot continue. Difficult or not, he must press ahead.
While the issues Mr Miliband must tackle may be complex, his best course of action is anything but. To silence critics, woo the electorate, and even put his trade union vacillations into the shade, all he need do is spell out more clearly, not just what he stands for, but what he would actually do. After a year of highfalutin talk about One Nation Labour, the public is none the wiser as to what it actually means. Neither is it sufficient to justify so abject a lack of policy with recourse to the length of time to the next election. We do not need a full A-to-Z of Labour’s 2015 pledges. But we do need something. If Mr Miliband’s own MPs opine that they do not know where their party stands on, say, education, then is it any wonder the electorate is baffled?
In fairness, we are seeing some flickers at last. As of yesterday, Labour is committed to repealing the increasingly unpopular “bedroom tax”. And The Independent today reveals that plans for “granny leave” – allowing grandmothers to share their daughters’ maternity leave – are to be in the manifesto. But more is needed.
A YouGov poll this week showed the two main parties neck and neck for the first time since before George Osborne’s “omnishambles” Budget in spring 2012. Even allowing for margins of error, the figures should be uncomfortable reading for Mr Miliband. It is time for something radical – now, or never.