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Labour Aren't in as Much Trouble as You Think - But Miliband Must Be Assertive if He Is to Win

15/08/2013 21:21 BST | Updated 15/10/2013 10:12 BST
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Now is the summer of our discontent - if you're a Labour voter, at least. Backbenchers have been crawling out of the woodwork in the past few weeks, angry at the perceived lack of direction from Ed Miliband and his shadow cabinet, worried that the party is not doing what must be done to take back power in 2015, and keen to make these points, loudly, and in the open. Labour's poll lead is too small and too soft, they say. The party has no policies, no positions. Miliband isn't credible next to David Cameron, and Ed Balls isn't credible next to George Osborne (a damning critique, if ever I heard one).

These criticisms of the party have been hyped up by the media, who are violently pro-Tory and need a narrative for the summer, because you can't fill a newspaper with articles on Jeremy Paxman's beard alone - although the Guardian did give it a good go. That doesn't mean that the flaws pinpointed by people like George Mudie and Graham Stringer are irrelevant - they've both made valid points - but the idea that Miliband is in some sort of existential crisis, an ideological and electoral black hole, is nonsensical. The impression that Labour are struggling, though, has taken hold, and been enhanced by polling that shows the Tories taking a clear lead on economic credibility - not to mention Miliband's egg attack while on a walkabout in South London.

There are, however, several key pieces of information that Miliband can be happy about while he's cleaning the yolk off his jacket. The fact remains that, for all the poll fluctuations, the Conservatives need to earn a much greater share of the vote in 2015 to take power than Labour would, thanks to the 'uneven' (unfair?) way in which the constituencies are drawn. Furthermore, the Tories would have to increase their share of the vote, something which governing parties almost never do in this country. Labour are likely to regain large chunks of Liberal Democrat voters, and the rise of UKIP threatens the Tory vote to a greater extent than the Labour vote. Miliband may not want to win power on just over a third of the votes cast, but the fact is that he is ahead in the polls, the system benefits him more than the Prime Minister, and the fluctuating fortunes of the smaller parties should fall in his favour too.

This doesn't mean that Miliband should be taking an election victory for granted. Far from it - the events of the past couple of weeks have shown his position to be more tenuous than triumphant, and he must grab the initiative if he's to consolidate the positives and banish the negatives.

There are a number of moves that Miliband can make to shore up his leadership and push on to the election. The easiest is a reshuffle of his underperforming shadow Cabinet, which will happen sooner rather than later. Labour has some hard-working and effective shadow ministers, but the Opposition struggles to make an imprint on the news agenda on certain subjects, such as education, foreign affairs and transport, and has let itself become stuck with a Tory-lite agenda on others, particularly on immigration, Europe and welfare. A reshuffle is only ever cosmetic - but so much of politics is cosmetic these days, focused on perception and surface, and Miliband's front bench is in dire need of a facelift. Chris Mullin, former Labour MP (and writer of three excellent volumes of diaries, if you're interested) advised Miliband this week to bring back some 'grown-ups' like Alan Johnson and Alistair Darling to his team, and he's right to say so. Cameron's government is not full of brilliant and infallible ministers, and a Labour shadow Cabinet with a bit more heft could land more punches in vulnerable areas.

Another priority for Miliband must be to focus on the economy. He is forever getting pulled this way and that, giving speeches focusing on tertiary issues. He must not lose sight of the fact that, like every other election in living memory, 2015 will be about the pounds in your pocket, or the lack of them. Labour must fight hard to get their economic message across - and it should be a simple one too, because the attacks on this government write themselves. We all know, now, in 2013, that Miliband's pitch to the electorate on the economy in just under two years time will be, 'Look, wages have fallen. Prices have risen. Mortgage rates can't stay low forever. You're worse off than you were in 2010.' That is a powerful message - but it's only half the story. To win power, Labour can't just be reactive, opposing the government's policies; the party has to be proactive, offering a solution to the problems that it will inherit. Too much of Labour's rhetoric since losing office has been easily rebutted by the Tory cry of, 'Well, what would you do?' - a question to which the Labour leader has too often not been able to produce a satisfactory answer.

This brings us to policy - the beef, as it were. Miliband's attempts to redefine social democracy have been hamstrung, by and large, by the desire to avoid committing to expensive projects which would elicit virulent attacks from the Tories who are keen to portray Labour as wasteful. This is a noose from which Miliband must extricate himself. If he offers tangible and visible improvements in wage rates, prices and public services, Miliband can win on a platform that is significantly different from that of the Conservatives. A cap on railway fares, for instance, as opposed to letting the train companies run amok, would give Miliband a hatful of votes from commuters who are tired of being treated like mugs. Cameron promised one, and didn't deliver. Here we have a real area where Miliband can highlight a broken promise from the Tories and pledge to fix it. Another action he could take would be to promise a large increase in the minimum wage, which would help Miliband recapture those on the breadline who don't see Labour as offering anything to people like them anymore. The Conservatives would never dream of it - so it's fertile ground for Labour. It would demonstrate, clearly and unequivocably, where Miliband's priorities lie. Labour could talk, too, about house-building, which creates jobs, brings prices down, and helps young families live better lives in less deprived areas. He could portray his vision of a greener economy, backed by his strong tenure as Energy and Climate Change Secretary. Labour doesn't have to be led by the Tories - it can make its' own arguments, lead with the front foot and challenge the failings of this government effectively, while offering realistic, practical, left-of-centre alternatives that would be persuasive to the electorate.

Miliband is known for being a big-picture, long-term sort of guy. The suggestion that he is shallow and lacking in substance doesn't ring true - but the dearth of ideas emanating from his party is troubling for anyone on the left. He may well have a big plan for government that he's keeping in a filing cabinet somewhere. If so, he needs to get it out sooner rather than later, or the political bad weather that follows him will take another turn for the worse. He mustn't be dejected or demoralised, but instead take the initiative and build on the positive features that are clear and present in his leadership, showing the electorate how Labour differs from the Tories and in what direction he would take the country. It is a big ask, especially for someone who's only just got back from his holidays, but it has to be done if Labour is to win well in 2015 - and govern well afterwards.