UK Politics

Landale online: Time for Ed Miliband to reach out

Ed Miliband
Image caption Ed Miliband has proved to be a good listener, but has he found a voice?

Ed Miliband is gearing up for his second conference as Labour leader. But what tasks does he face over the next week?

Politicians love the mechanics of their profession.

They love consulting focus groups, agonising over policy documents, finessing tight parliamentary votes.

They love giving speeches, campaigning for elections, even giving media interviews.

But sometimes this can become displacement activity to avoid tackling that most tricky and most vital of political tasks - earning the right to be heard.

And that is the task of Ed Miliband as he and the Labour Party gather in Liverpool for their annual conference.

They need to persuade the nation to lend an ear. They need to convince voters that the politics of Britain are not confined to a debate between the coalition parties. They need to show people that Labour is relevant.

Mr Miliband intends to demonstrate to people that Labour understands their concerns. He will talk much of what he calls the "squeezed middle", the low and middle-income families feeling the pain of lower living standards and job insecurity as the economy stagnates.

He will acknowledge, too, their fears for the future, the doubts that perhaps their children may be less well off than them, with rising tuition fees, unaffordable house prices, and few jobs.

He will empathise with their anger at the lack of responsibility shown equally by benefit scroungers and greedy bankers. It is the political equivalent of saying, "I feel your pain. I understand what you are going through."

But there are challenges and risks with this strategy:

The blank sheet of paper

It is all very well asking voters for their attention. But even if you get it, you need to have something to say. You need to be able to say - even in broad terms - what you might do to make things better. Thus far, Labour's policy cupboard is relatively bare.

A two-year policy review is under way, which started with the infamous blank sheet of paper. There will be an interim document published in Liverpool showing how they are getting on. There will be moods and themes but little detail.

Yes, some new policy on a contributory welfare state and tougher deficit rules may be announced during the week. But few expect any grand overarching strategic policy that could unsqueeze the middle. The risk is this becomes little more than a holding conference. The party's slogan for the week is: "Fulfilling the promise of Britain." The obvious question is, how?

It is the economy, stupid

The area where Labour needs to do most work is the economy. Party strategists accept that many voters hold Labour in part to blame for the economic slowdown. They also accept that many voters seem to support the pace and depth of the coalition's deficit-reducing spending cuts.

Labour needs to try to change this narrative. It believes that the coalition is cutting spending and raising taxes too far too fast and that this is choking off growth and fuelling unemployment.

Now Labour has some policies - it would temporarily cut VAT and reintroduce a bankers' bonus tax. But it has yet to persuade people that a massive deceleration of the deficit reduction programme would not result in market panic, rising inflation and higher interest rates.

You cannot make an economic policy credible in the eyes of voters with one conference speech. But it is a speech that has to be given sometime. On the issue of the day, as the eurozone crisis deepens, Labour has to try to get a word in edgeways. When the government is struggling to come up with a convincing growth strategy, there is an opportunity for Labour to fill the vacuum with its own.

Hallo, my name is Ed Miliband and I am the leader of the Labour Party

This conference is another opportunity for Labour to re-introduce its leader to the nation. His personal polling is much like that of any new opposition leader - the voters tend to say they just know little about him.

But perhaps more worrying for Labour are suggestions that those who do know something about Mr Miliband do not rate him. A Times poll recently suggested that only 47% of Labour voters thought that Mr Miliband would ever become prime minister.

Research by the Labour-leaning Fabian Society suggested many voters see Mr Miliband as a good listener but less good as a communicator or decision-maker. They gave him a year to make himself more credible.

So the challenge at this conference is for Mr Miliband to try to show the voters that he has what it takes. He showed his MPs that he can cut the mustard when it matters with his assured performance during the phone hacking crisis in the summer when he led the way in calling for a judge-led inquiry and Rebekah Brooks' head.

He now needs to show the same mettle to world outside. He acknowledged to the New Statesman this week that he had done rather well over the hacking affair "because people had a sense that we were reflecting the mood of the country. And that's what you want to do as leader of the opposition."

Oh Brothers, where art thou?

The other challenge for Mr Miliband is to make sure that this conference does not become dominated by a confrontation with the unions.

He has already gone some way towards avoiding this getting his row out of the way early, telling the TUC conference that he opposes their planned strikes against pension cuts. He was heckled for his trouble. But he is intent on recasting Labour's relationship with the unions.

He has delayed plans to weaken their voting powers at conference but he is pressing ahead with proposals to dilute their role during leadership elections. He wants to recruit thousands of registered supporters - who are not full members of the Labour party - and give them the right to vote in leadership contests.

Crucially, they will vote in the same bit of the electoral college as the unions, thus diminishing the brothers' role. So the balance the Labour leadership needs to strike is to keep its distance from unions that are planning unpopular strikes while not allowing any rows to dominate conference. Mr Miliband does not want the narrative of his week to be one of Labour navel-gazing while the euro burns.

The past is another country. They do things differently there

As ever with a recently defeated party with a new leadership, there is the risk of the past rearing its head. Alistair Darling's book is fresh on the stands to remind voters of the chaos of the last government. David Miliband may not be in town for his brother's speech but he may be in Liverpool at some point, his very presence a reminder to party members of what might have been.

There will be fringe debates between Blue bookers and Purple bookers, old Blairites and Brownites. And while many will claim to be looking to the future, some at least will just be fighting the old battles under new colours.

As that old Labour slogan - as obvious as it was ungrammatical - said: "Forward, not back."