Labour’s political strategy has become a bit like the Sir Ben Ainslie school of politics. In the style of the great Olympic yachtsman, just as you think Labour is tacking hard to the left, then it tacks back to the right.
So it is that in less than three weeks Labour has gone from Ed Miliband’s conference speech, promising 1970s socialist policies of price control and a land grab on developers, to last weekend’s right-wing appeal of “we’re going to be tougher on benefits than the Tories”, from new shadow work and pensions secretary Rachel Reeves, and “we will keep privately run free schools”, from new shadow education secretary Tristram Hunt.
While it is fair to say that none of these policies are in themselves contradictory, the different directions of travel politically certainly appear to be.
Ms Reeve’s utterances on benefits are particularly telling because they say a lot about where the key battle ground for the 2015 election could end up.
While many people think that Mr Miliband has succeeded in defining the next election as one over the cost of living, which is outstripping wages, it is clear that Labour is concerned that welfare reform could be its Achilles heel.
So far, Labour has opposed all the major reforms brought in by Iain Duncan Smith, which have brought in more than £30 billion of savings. It voted against the welfare cap of £26,000 per household; Labour also wants to keep paying subsidies to people who live in large council houses with more bedrooms than they need in the “bedroom tax” row.
What it has allowed is for the Tories to brand Labour the “welfare party” at a time when they are pitching themselves as the party “for hard-working people”.
And this message appears to be getting through and harming Labour’s chances. An admittedly unscientific survey or waiters and taxi drivers in Manchester, during the Tory conference, suggested that there was real anger about those who are “getting something for nothing” and that the “hard-working people” message had seeped through and was liked.
Of far more concern to Labour is its own private polling carried out by James Morris for Mr Miliband and presented to senior people last week, which showed that the party is being hammered on the issue.
Morris described Labour’s problem as “very severe”, and his polling showed that the party lost in all 150 sub-groups, except among those describing themselves as left-wing, and Guardian or Mirror readers. The key figure was that among Tory/Labour swing voters 64 per cent supported the Tories on the issue and only 9 per cent Labour.
It is almost certainly this polling that has persuaded Ms Reeves to take such a hard line clearly in an effort to neutralise the issue. Unfortunately, she will now say how the party intends to be “tougher than the Tories on benefits”, which will not go down well in Labour.