Miliband struggling to get his message across
Opinion: the British public seems to trust Labour to run things more fairly; but more trust the Tories to run the economy
“The problem with Miliband’s strategy is not the ideas but rather their execution.” Photograph: EPA/Facundo Arrizabalaga
Ed Miliband trailed his big speech last Friday for days in advance, offering titbits to flesh out the line that he will be the man to put manners on big business.
In the end he was beaten to the punch and many of the headlines by Conservative chancellor of the exchequer George Osborne.
On Thursday, Osborne seemingly accidentally announced that he favours a 69p per hour rise in the minimum wage. A prospect he had rejected a year ago.
Nothing is ever accidental with the ever-political Osborne. For him, every waking moment is about elections and winning them. But the incident, perhaps, provides insight for the next year.
Miliband undoubtedly touched a public nerve by proclaiming a need for responsible capitalism. His “predatory capitalists” speech of 2011 was initially mocked, but no longer.
Equally, he did so by promising to freeze British electricity companies’ prices for nearly two years if elected in May 2015.
That action triggered chaos within Conservative ranks who were unable, for weeks on end, to come up with rebuttal arguments that made much sense.
Electricity prices formed a core part of Miliband’s “cost of living” crisis argument, fertile territory in a country where wages have not kept pace with inflation.
The problem with Miliband’s strategy is not the ideas, but rather their execution in a country where background events make that difficult, if not impossible.
Barring a collapse in raw energy costs, for example, British electricity prices are going to rise at above inflation for years to come.
Since privatisation, for example, electricity firms have sweated assets in pursuit of higher profits, which now leaves a £120 billion (€145 billion) refurbishment bill that can be little further delayed.
Ministers of any political hue enjoy few levers to exert pressure on companies in a world where the issue becomes ever more about supply and not just price.
Contentious banking policy
Meanwhile, Miliband promises to break up the biggest banks. Undoubtedly, the big five: Lloyds, Barclays, HSBC, Santander and RBS hold too much sway.
State-backed banks would become more important. Two additional high street banks would be created. “This is not about whether we have new banks, but how,” he said.
However, a plan to force branch sell-offs is fraught with difficulty. Significant competitors are slow about showing signs of wanting to break up the market.
The US Metro Bank – the first on the high street in 100 years – started in 2011, but still has few branches, while Virgin is yet to offer current accounts to customers.
Moreover, there is a problem – not often acknowledged – with the lack, particularly outside London, of backable businesses. Even a state-backed fund is struggling to find candidates
The perennial problem – public inertia when it comes to shifting their accounts – persists, fuelled by a belief that this is as stressful as buying a house.
Since last September customers can move their accounts within seven working days, with a guarantee that all direct debits and standing orders are automatically transferred. So far, it has provoked a trickle, rather than a flood.
Questioned indirectly about Miliband’s plans, Bank of England governor Mark Carney politely raised doubts that it could be done. Or that it could work if it was done.
Labour’s shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna – considered a coming political giant on the back of little evidence – displayed an unattractive petulance by telling Carney to butt out.
The point is this: the Labour leader has found some of the right issues that worry British voters, but is not yet reaching them with language they understand.
Miliband wants to refashion capitalism for the modern era, yet many of those listening to him have yet to stop blaming Labour for its own mistakes before 2010.
With less than 18 months to the election, a majority of the public seems to trust Labour to run the country more fairly. But more trust Conservatives to handle the economy.
Opinion polls, while no more than a guide, show Labour’s lead down to low single figures. But the numbers voicing confidence about their own prospects rose to 52 points.
The Tories are increasingly confident that the good numbers will continue. Indeed, some fear that inevitable interest rises could complicate the run-in to 2015.
On occasion Labour has sounded as if it is carping in the face of improving figures – an understandable political reaction, perhaps, but one that is always unattractive to voters.
However, Miliband is not short of natural advantages.
Tensions within Coalition
Relations between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats are becoming ever more strained.
Difficulties always occur, naturally, for coalitions as an election looms closer. The experience in Ireland is an instructive guide in that regard.
However, the fissures here are happening more deeply and quickly than is sustainable for coherent government. Or, at least, for the presentation of unity to voters.
“I am determined to lead Labour into the next election as a One Nation party of the consumer, small businesses, working- and middle-class families who never thought they would be struggling with this cost of living crisis,” Miliband has said.
The One Nation mantra is as incomprehensible to voters as was David Cameron’s Big Society.
Nevertheless, Miliband’s target voters exist and can be brought together if he can capture their attention. But so far he has not done so to the degree required.