Ed Miliband’s pitch for 2015 already evident: are you are worse off now?

Labour leader has turned the Conservatives’ strategy on its head, making business the target

Ed Miliband: believes the centre has moved to the left. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters

Ed Miliband: believes the centre has moved to the left. Photograph: Stefan Wermuth/Reuters


Sometimes a delayed reaction is best.
Ed Miliband’s speech this week at the Labour conference in Brighton –
where he vowed to freeze energy prices for nearly two years – produced a spike in
the party’s support.

However, the best is probably yet to come because the public has to be dragged to pay attention to any conference speeches in today’s world.

Energy companies, who were in Brighton for the conference like many other corporations, are ready to announce near-10 per cent price rises in November, if not before. Such moves, when they come, will be manna from heaven for Miliband, who warned in 2011 about the effects of “predatory capitalism”. Few professed then to know what he was talking about. They do now.

Five years of economic woes have stretched pay packets: the politics of need and the politics of envy are there to be exploited. The Conservatives were there before but on different ground, spreading the narrative that every welfare claimant was a bad claimant.

Miliband has effectively
turned the Conservatives’ strategy on its head, making business the target: energy companies are fleecing customers, while builders are hoarding land, he argues.

Predictably, this has led to a return of the “Red Ed” label and charges that Labour is going back by decades. Even former party leader Neil Kinnock believes so, but he is happy about the prospect, convinced that Miliband wants, in effect, a 1970s-style prices and income policy.

Undeniably populist
Little that Miliband said at
the conference would have been heard during the Blair-Brown years. Perhaps that is the point: Miliband rejects the New Labour tag.

Labour energy policy would be more complicated, however. Companies could push to dramatically increase prices before the election, though that would be a gift to the opposition. Or they could put them up afterwards. By then, if there is a Labour victory, Miliband would be in Downing Street and the future is a land whose history is unwritten.

Miliband is, however, being undeniably populist. Besides an energy price freeze, he promises that 200,000 houses a year will be built; rates for small businesses be cut; and taxes for the richest be increased. Also, the minimum wage would rise significantly, at least for everyone working in an industry that can pay it. Banks would pay nearly £1 billion more in a levy to fund 25 hours a week of childcare for three- and four-year-olds.

The pitch for 2015 is already evident: Miliband will ask voters if they are worse off and then blame the Conservatives when the majority inevitably answer “yes”.

This will work only if a majority believe that Labour can be trusted once more with the economy or that they cannot be fully blamed for
the 2008 crisis. For now, a significant percentage still
find against the party on
both charges.

Easy to diagnose
Energy prices in the UK are high; privatisation was badly handled; regulation and competition are problematic. However, if the problems are easy to diagnose, solutions
are not.

Labour’s policy has been questioned by Peter Mandelson; also a gift for a leader seeking to put distance between himself and the party’s recent past.

On housing, Miliband pledges to double construction: the demand is clear and the rate of construction is near record lows, if now climbing. However, planning changes have made a sclerotic system worse. The UK has never built such numbers of houses without the authorities doing much of it.

In the 1990s, Tony Blair strove to add support in the centre to Labour’s traditional core. Today, Miliband believes the centre has moved left and that he does not need all of it.

Equally, there is an in-built bias in the voting rules towards Labour, while the Conservatives have well-founded fears about that threat. In 2005, after two terms in power, Tony Blair won 55 per cent of the seats with just 35 per cent of the vote. Eighteen months out, Miliband would snatch at
such figures greedily.

Mark Hennessy is
London Editor

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