Ed Miliband - standing up to who?

 

Ed Miliband believes that his task this week is to establish his character not Labour's policy prospectus (as I spelt out in yesterday's post).

He wants to portray himself as a leader who is strong and has a clear vision, in contrast to a prime minister who he portrays as interested in power for its own sake and who has swung between hugging hoodies and huskies in opposition to wanting to lock up the first and ignore the second now he's in government.

The first policy Labour has chosen to highlight at their conference is their willingness "to stand up to" the banks - to force a full split between their retail and investment arms on the lines recommended by the Vickers Commission and backed by the governor of the Bank of England.

This has the advantage of being a popular, untestable and cost-free promise. It, like promises of tougher energy price regulation, is meant to show that Labour will take on vested interests and improve people's lives without spending any more public money. So far, so easy.

Much harder for any Labour leader to stand up to are the trade unions and other interest groups who demand that their next government spends more money and undoes "Tory reforms". Ed Miliband says it would be "a distraction" to break the trade union link or to reform the rules which continue to give union leaders significant financial muscle and political influence.

Unite's General Secretary Len McCluskey presented him with an easy target by calling in the Sunday Times for Blairites to be pushed out of the party. Ed responded by insisting that Len was wrong and that he wanted to get people into and not push them out of the Labour party. He pointed out that he had already stood up to the unions by backing public sector pay curbs.

The real test, though, will come on longer term questions about public spending and the public services.

Take the confusion over the NHS in the past 24 hours. First Ed Miliband said he would not waste £3bn re-re-organising the health service. Then the shadow health spokesman Andy Burnham felt it necessary to issue a clarifying tweet stating that the coalition's NHS bill would be repealed. Now, Ed says that both things are true.

The promise not to re-re-organise the NHS was rooted in the realism of a leader who knows the limits of what Labour could do in office. The promise to repeal the bill was a political but potentially costly reaction to the many Labour supporters demanding fundamental change.

For the NHS read social care, tuition fees, free schools, exam reforms... and much, much more besides. All policies which Labour, like Tory oppositions in the past, says we must wait for until we are closer to the next election.

Standing up to the bankers, the wealthy and greedy companies may illustrate how a government can improve people's lives without spending money but it is also the easy bit.

The hard bit comes when you stand up to your own supporters and tell them what they can't have. The Labour leader says he's standing up for Britain. The question which the next phase of politics could turn on is exactly who he is standing up to?

 
Nick Robinson, Political editor Article written by Nick Robinson Nick Robinson Political editor

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