Opinion surveys taken earlier this month suggested Labour could just scrape to a general election victory next May. Whatever the pollsters find after the party’s annual conference, it seems unlikely that Ed Miliband’s less than stunning performance in Manchester has enhanced his chances of becoming prime minister.
This did not look like a party showcasing a comprehensive programme for government prepared after four and a half years in opposition. Instead, it resembled a party at mid-term, pushing a few populist buttons trying to win public attention. True, the idea of a mansion tax on the wealthiest homeowners, restoration of the 50p tax rate on incomes over £150,000 and freezing energy prices all win popular approval.
Only the mansion tax looks likely to do what Mr Miliband says it will – increase tax revenue. Analysis of when the 50p rate operated shows that it actually raised very little money for the Exchequer. And an energy price freeze may end up damaging Britain’s energy infrastructure by deterring investment just when it needs hundreds of billions spent on it to avoid the possibility of the lights having to be dimmed.
It means that while these are policies that might work to win votes, they don’t work in economic terms. That’s unfortunate for Mr Miliband, because it is the economy that matters most in this election, and on that matter Labour looks weak.
Failing to mention the deficit was a major blunder. Mr Miliband tried to excuse it by saying that such things will happen if you are delivering a speech without notes. That compounds the error, making him look like a politician more concerned with style than substance.
Labour’s intention is not to abandon austerity as a means of eliminating the deficit, but to ease up on it, setting 2020 as the target date for closing the gap between public spending and tax revenues rather than 2018, which the Office for Budget Responsibility reckons is when the present government’s policies should bridge the spending gap.
But most voters in the UK next May are likely to be more interested in the economic recovery which looks to be gathering speed and now seems to be reaching the stage when real income levels are beginning to rise as well.
Mr Miliband’s mistake also plays into the hands of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties. Between now and polling day, they will be endlessly claiming that it was Labour’s mistakes which got Britain into the deficit and debt hole, so why vote for a party that could mess things up again.
Labour too has been damaged by the independence referendum, which saw the Yes campaign pile up votes in Labour’s Scottish heartlands. Mr Miliband’s less than sure-footed response to the No vote adds to the impression that Labour is far from in a fit condition to govern.
Action needed now to stop IS
David Cameron’s decision to recall parliament to discuss British military action against the genocidal Islamic State (IS) fanatics killing all they class as “unbelievers” in Iraq and Syria is right. MPs should be given a say in what is now becoming a war against this “network of death”.
There is no need for UN Security Council authorisation as the Iraqi government has requested help. But that does not mean there should be any lessening of the effort to build the widest possible international coalition for the action.
By its alarming use of social media for any who share its warped theology to kill “unbelievers”, wherever in the world they may be, IS has shown it is a danger to people everywhere and not just in the part of the Middle East where it is most immediately spreading its poison. International solidarity to stamp it out is essential.
Mr Cameron still has many questions to answer. Will UK ground troops, including special forces, be deployed? Let us be clear that any boots on the ground should be Middle Eastern boots, the better to demonstrate that IS represents an evil which threatens Muslim people and countries even more than it threatens us.
Will UK military action be confined to Iraq as it is the requesting government, or will it spread to Syria, which is where IS came to life and from where it could still pose a significant threat even if it is extinguished in Iraq?
There are many other questions, none of which are easy to answer. But it is abundantly clear that inaction is not an option. Too many innocent lives, most of them Muslim, are threatened by the spread of IS.