22/09/2013 05:36 BST | Updated 21/11/2013 05:12 GMT

For Miliband, Steady, Safety-First Politics Is No Longer An Option

With a much diminished poll lead the Labour tribe starts its week in Brighton nervous about what the next 18 months will bring. For Ed Miliband, steady, safety-first politics is no longer an option: he must make the running and create the sense that his party stands ready to deliver big changes. That's why his decision to roll out lots of policy this week is so important. He needs a substantial list of promises that will excite his party foot-soldiers and reconnect with people looking to give Labour a chance.

Nick Clegg has set a high bar with his announcement on free school meals: Miliband must comfortably beat it. This matters not least because the party is now the home for a cohort of left-leaning former Lib Dem voters who until now have been unwavering in their support for Labour. They explain why the party has been consistently ahead in the polls and remains the bookies' favourite to win the next election.

What's been troubling about Labour's slide in the polls is that it has been caused in large part by declining support among the sort of people who stuck with the party in 2010. This group is not as rock-solid as it needs to be, with YouGov suggesting that a quarter of Labour's 2010 voters do not support the party today. By contrast, the Lib Dem converts have stayed solid and Miliband had few former Tory voters to lose, since he's never had much luck in winning over Cameron's 2010 supporters.

So, as Miliband looks ahead to a tricky few months, he should ignore calls to tack to the right and first rebuild his strength among the millions of voters who are already disposed to give Labour a chance. That means a ruthless focus on reconnecting with people who have voted Labour or Liberal Democrat in the last decade, some of who have not bothered voting in recent years, as well as on young people new to politics. These are the groups who are naturally sympathetic to Labour but, right now, struggle to say anything about the choice the party offers them. To earn back their attention and support Labour needs to show them how and why it is different from the coalition, in ways people will notice in their own lives.

This generation of Labour politicians are not going to achieve that task through sheer force of personality: politicians in the mould of Blair or Obama are few and far between. But Miliband can reconnect with the voters who are drifting from him by playing to his strengths, as a politician who is about substance and policy. For Labour is today weak in the area that Miliband has the potential to be very strong: in setting out big, radical plans.

The party has plenty of exciting ideas to draw on, but so far it's only talking about them to itself, and as tentative possibilities not firm pledges. Conversations about building a million homes, raising the minimum wage, new entitlements to childcare and social care, or a state investment bank must become firm election promises and soon. This is not a far-left prospectus because most people who lead towards Labour want an alternative to the coalition that is distinct but also credible.

In Brighton, Labour will start to show what their alternative will look like, with memorable, signature pledges. For unless it acts now, the electoral coalition which has sustained Labour's lead for three years could splinter. Miliband will win in 2015 as a man of substance, with a clear, distinctive offer for people who want reasons to give Labour a chance. Without big things to say, the drift in the polls will continue.