The Labour Party did quite well in the opinion polls for four months over the summer, without a leader. So perhaps we should not be surprised that Ed Miliband has decided to continue the practice. He has led the way by giving no lead, allowing party spokespeople to continue on their default setting, opposing everything the Government does from a predictable old Labour world view. Last week, it was the housing benefit cuts, which Miliband chose as his theme for Prime Minister's Questions, and on which he will force a vote in the House of Commons this week, thus putting himself and his party on the side of benefit claimants against the tax-paying majority.
Put like that, it sounds harsh and heartless to criticise Miliband's approach. Surely Labour must be on the side of the poor and the vulnerable? Of course; but there was a time when Labour argued for remedying the causes of poverty instead of simply racking up the bills of social failure. And these ideas for cutting housing benefit were not conceived in a Tea Party test tube before being transatlantically transplanted into a right-wing Conservative Party; they have been discussed by Labour ministers and Department of Work and Pensions officials and advisers for more than a decade. Labour secretaries of state started the process of reform, which has now been accelerated.
Specifically, James Purnell announced in December 2008 that he would consult on housing benefit reforms to ensure that "people on benefits do not end up getting subsidies for rents that those who work could never afford". Labour ought, therefore, to accept the principle of cutting welfare spending, carp about some of the details if it must but change the subject on to something on which it finds itself on the side of the majority of voters.
Douglas Alexander, Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, was the only Labour politician to get it right. Last weekend he said he supported "in principle" Iain Duncan Smith's plan to replace all out-of-work benefits with a single "universal credit" payment. How many people noticed that compared with the number who noticed Chris Bryant, the shadow constitutional reform minister, who took the housing benefit debate to a new level with hysterical and unreasonable talk of "social cleansing"? Never mind that the concept was then hijacked by Boris Johnson, who said with brilliant ambiguity, "We will not accept a kind of 'Kosovo-style social cleansing' of London." Leave aside for a moment the fascinating positioning of Johnson versus George Osborne as next Tory leader: this is not where Labour ought to be.
It is the same with the cut to child benefit for households with a higher-rate taxpayer. There was joy unbounded in Labour ranks when a Treasury source was quoted last week as saying that the cut, planned for 2013, was "unenforceable". Alan Johnson, the shadow chancellor, went on the radio to talk about incompetence, mocking the Government for having cobbled together an ill-considered policy for a headline before the Tory conference.
This is unthinking politics. It should be obvious that the policy was not dreamt up on the back of an envelope. It may not have gone to Cabinet, which afforded journalists some sport, but the options had been debated intensively in the Treasury since the election – when civil servants dusted off papers prepared for the previous government. And, yes, there are some complications: limiting a universal benefit will require extra bureaucracy – but the idea that it is "unenforceable" is just spin. Higher-rate taxpayers have to tell HMRC if they are living with someone entitled to claim child benefit; how hard is that to enforce? Once again, Labour is obsessed with the trees, unable to see that its forest is deeply unpopular with the voters.
Talk of unenforceability brings us to Miliband's speech to the CBI on Monday, in which he repeated his plan for "tax cuts for those employers who pay the living wage". Now here is a policy that really does seem to have been jotted down on the back of an envelope, requiring a huge new bureaucracy to monitor pay rates in companies, to check that they are paying a "living wage" much higher than the minimum wage. Why not, instead, just raise the minimum wage, a simple and thoroughly enforceable law that applies to everyone?
Meanwhile, David Cameron has been off to Brussels to pose as the defender of the British taxpayer. And this week Labour will be trapped on the wrong side of three issues. Tomorrow, the Commons takes the next stage of the Parliamentary Voting System and Constituencies Bill. Labour has lost interest in the prospect of electoral reform that would give more power to the voters, and is working itself up into a righteous froth about the "gerrymandering" of constituency boundaries to Labour's disadvantage.
Miliband ought to tell his MPs that they will gain nothing by opposing the principle of more equal-sized constituencies (and he could add, quietly consulting Professor John Curtice, that the new boundaries will do the Tories much less good than they think). Then there is the vote on housing benefit. And, finally, Vince Cable's announcement on student finance, where the Liberal Democrats' embarrassment has covered Miliband's own. He backs a graduate tax that would not bring in additional revenue for years.
On every single issue, the Prime Minister is on the side of the voters, and Ed Miliband, when he is visible, is on the wrong side, defending the sectional interest of benefit claimants, rich parents, Labour MPs or students. David Cameron and George Osborne ought to be vulnerable. They look too pleased with themselves, too much as if they are enjoying the student politics of it all. But, on the evidence of Miliband's first five weeks, they have nothing to fear.
John Rentoul blogs at: www.independent.co.uk/jrentoul
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