Though his latest decisions have been seen as successful, it could all still go wrong for Ed Miliband, writes Brian Monteith
The last few weeks has seen Ed Miliband take a new, more active, even bold, approach to his leadership of the Labour Party. In the three areas of energy prices, defending his father’s reputation and crafting his front-bench team of spokesmen and women, he has come over as audacious, principled and decisive.
While he may yet still prove to be the wrong Miliband, he can no longer be criticised for being too anonymous, or often flippant and rather geekishly out of touch.
In his speech to the Labour conference, he took the initiative with an assault on what he is branding the “cost of living crisis” – trying to take the focus away from the coalition government’s relative success in building an economic recovery. This switch of emphasis is key, for there will be nothing so wounding to his personal standing if what he said before about the need for a Plan B for economic growth can be repeatedly replayed so that he is seen to have failed to grasp Britain’s underlying financial problems and displayed a cowardice towards making tough choices and then be willing persevering with them.
Without the new policy focus, David Cameron would, by contrast, be able to portray himself as the man who can be trusted in difficult circumstances, playing to the existing polling that repeatedly places the prime minister ahead of Miliband as a leader. (A weekend YouGov poll said 3 per cent of Tories think Cameron is doing a bad job, 24 per cent of Lib Dems think that of Nick Clegg but 26 per cent of Labour supporters think it of Ed Miliband.)
His spat with the Daily Mail has generally worked to his benefit, partly because he took a mostly dignified approach that attracted public sympathy but more obviously due to the Mail’s over-the-top headline. Then last week in his mini-reshuffle, Miliband managed to clear out many of the remaining Blairites and strengthen his own position – winning favour with his trade union allies.
It would be fair to say that it has been a good period for Ed Miliband, that his star should be in the ascendency – while Cameron and Clegg continue to be haunted by that man Farage and what he and his party may do to them in the 2015 general election.
And yet it could all still go wrong – for as quickly as Miliband has had his perceived successes, they could, within a few weeks, all count for naught.
Some of his new shadow team appear to be rewriting policies in a cack-handed manner, issuing hostages to fortune that are already causing much mirth. The party’s welfare spokeswoman Rachel Reeves is now saying that Labour will be harder on benefits if returned to office while Michael Gove’s shadow spokesman, Tristram Hunt, is promising to support Free Schools – while giving local authorities the power of veto any new applications.
The first policy is completely at odds with what has been said by Labour for the last three years while the latter is too clever by half – on the one hand appearing as a refreshing dose of practicality towards a popular policy but laced with arsenic through an inner contradiction that would make it unworkable.
If it took only five days from his reshuffle for these embarrassments to be announced, how many more are in store for Miliband in the 61 days remaining before Christmas?
Miliband’s biggest public relations success – his call for a price freeze of electricity and gas prices as a response to a concocted cost of living crisis – could also yet be his biggest tactical error.
It should be remembered that inflation has been on a downward trend since it hit its peak of 5.2 per cent two years ago in October 2011. Indeed it has remained below 3 per cent since April of last year and fell last month to 2.7 per cent.
True, Miliband hit a nerve in identifying energy prices as a significant public concern but, wait a minute, was he not the last Labour cabinet minister for energy?
Ignacio Galán, the chief executive of ScottishPower’s Spanish owners, Iberdola, last week warned of the effect that fixing a price cap on retail energy prices could have when Miliband would be unable to also place a cap on the international prices for oil, gas and coal that generate the power.
Miliband was accused of risking ScottishPower’s plans for investment of some £15 billion by creating uncertainty. If Iberdola and other energy companies cannot see they will get a return on their capital investments, they are certain to scale back and use their finance where it will be more productive.
The many cross-subsidies introduced by Miliband and his predecessors are now guarded jealously by the Liberal Democrats inside the coalition – helping provide Tory strategists with an opportunity to emphasise the difference between the two parties.
Hard bargaining is promised as Chancellor Osborne looks to find ways to cut subsidies and thus cut energy bills – exposing at the same time Labour’s role in pushing the prices up and the Lib Dems in defending them.
Just as Labour pushed up the price of petrol on the forecourt and the coalition has chosen to scrap more increases in fuel duty that should have been introduced, so too can the Conservatives turn Miliband’s new policy to their advantage.
Which only leaves Ed Miliband’s defence of his father. Do not believe this issue will go away. Instead I expect it to be broadened as politicians and commentators pick up on the core theme that generated the story in the first place – namely Labour’s swing to the left under an ideologically driven Miliband who needs to keep the trade unions onside.
For Conservatives in particular the spectre of Red Miliband can shore up its support from an assault by Ukip – just as the threat of Neil Kinnock was used to stop its softest supporters drifting to the SDP in 1987.
Ed Miliband should not crack open the champagne just yet.