John McTernan: Maturing Miliband makes his case

Labour's leader has learned on the job; when he gets his team to punch as well as he does, he'll win over critics

A FORTNIGHT ago Ed Miliband was in Oslo for the Progressive Governance Summit. This international network was established by Bill Clinton and Tony Blair when it looked as though the centre-left "progressives" were in the ascendancy. It was a much depleted group of leaders who met in Norway, most of the European left of centre parties - with the exception of the Norwegian hosts, and the under-siege Spanish Socialists - are in opposition.

What was most striking though, was how authoritative a figure Ed Miliband cut on this international stage. Of course, as Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change he gained experience in international meetings, particularly at Copenhagen, where famously he was the only minister willing to wake up in the middle of the night and go back to the conference floor to see if a deal could be salvaged. But it was more than experience, there was a new ease and an authority about him. It was not just his bearing, but the content and clarity of his thinking. In pithy interventions he framed the challenge for the centre left globally, and locally in the UK.

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On the response to the global financial crisis he said: "Our opponents are weak in one key respect - their response to a crisis of neo-liberalism is more neo-liberalism." As for the UK, he observed that the "new inequality in Britain is not between the rich and the poor, but between the rich and everyone else" on top of which "intergenerational inequality is one of the issues of this century". His aim for the economy? "More active and interventionist industrial policy can create middle skill, middle wage jobs" - the decent incomes that ordinary families in middle Britain need and expect so that they bring up their own kids in their own homes.

This latter point is one of the central strands of Milibandism - that there is a growing group of people who work hard, play by the rules, put in all their life but get nothing back. The squeezed middle - too rich for benefits, too poor for the bonus culture. Miliband was mocked by commentators for refusing to specify who exactly were in this group - where, he was asked, were the income cut-off levels? He correctly stuck to his guns and the phrase has begun to stick. Its very breadth is its strength. Ed isn't telling you that you're part of the squeezed middle - you define yourself in.

Strategically this is a great position to occupy since the next four years are going to see the longest decline in living standards in Britain for over 100 years. On top of this squeeze will common tuition fees at 9,000 a year in England - parents will see kids facing a 50,000 debt for a degree, once housing and living costs are taken into account.The symbolic capstone of this will be in 2013 when the coalition will abandon the 50p top rate of tax - giving a massive break to high earners at the same time that they take Child Benefit away from two earner middle class families. It is then that Miliband hopes to cash in - people perhaps impervious to his message up till then will realise that he meant them too. If there is going to be a middle class backlash against the coalition then Ed is preparing for it.

The second strand has been making the case that Labour own the themes of optimism and hope. On election as Labour leader Miliband staked that ground out when he challenged David Cameron directly - "you were the optimist once but now all you can offer is a miserable, pessimistic view of what we can achieve". This rattled No 10 then, and they will be concerned that Ed has returned to the theme in Oslo, proclaiming "we need to be modernisers. We need to reassure. We need to be bearers of the future". At the weekend he pushed forward on this - saying that Labour's message in the past few years had relied too much on fear and not enough on hope.

This proposition was made concrete in a major speech on Monday when Miliband talked of the "British promise". It's a clunky phrase, but we'll hear more of it. It is intended to be a UK version of the "American Dream", defined for Brits by Ed as the promise that our children will live a better life than us - learning and earning more, owning their own home, having greater disposable income. He's tapping into something major here - there is an uncertainty, if not a downright pessimism among many about the future. However, this is precisely where Ed faces a significant challenge himself.

For, if Miliband is providing a strategic frame for the next election, he hasn't yet constructed the necessary tactical scaffolding - the narrative, the policies or the message. It's the paradox of opposition that in the early years the public aren't listening, but you need to keep speaking.

Thus far, the record of Ed's team in this is mixed. When shadowing Iain Duncan Smith, Douglas Alexander set an agenda of critical support for welfare reform. This has been followed by Liam Byrne. Outside of that where is Labour's voice? It was the professions and Lib Dem backbenchers that caused a pause in health reform south of the Border, not Labour. What is Labour actually saying on rebalancing the economy, on housing, on social care? No-one knows. No doubt Miliband's policy review will produce interesting ideas - but they're needed now, not in 18 months' time.

So, nine months in, how is Ed doing? Getting the big things right, but lacking some important building blocks. He needs a simple three-point argument against the coalition. And he needs a higher work rate from his front bench - they need to cut through as a team, but first they have to punch hard individually.Last week at Prime Minister's Questions Miliband showed the way - seize on a government error, in this case Ken Clarke's gaffe on rape, and drive the news agenda. Ed and his team need to do that more.

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Only a consistent series of tactical victories will get Labour to the point where they can win the strategic battle.