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Tuesday, January 10, 2012 

Facing up to the same old reality.

There appears to be a quarterly cycle in how the media report the progress of Labour under Ed Miliband. With the exception, predictably, of the Graun and Mirror, Ed's conference speech was almost universally derided by the press. Business itself, ignoring the always open mouth of Digby "the biggest bore in the world" Jones, was strangely muted in response, perhaps realising that a change was in the air. So it has come to pass: having accused Miliband of being anti-business for daring to suggest that some firms act akin to vampire squids, David Cameron and Nick Clegg have since leapt on to remarkably similar territory. Cameron's proposal that shareholder votes on executive remuneration be binding might not amount to much when hardly any ultimately reject what the boards propose to pay themselves, but it's reminiscent of the old tactic, much used by both the Tories and Labour of stealing policies first floated by the Liberal Democrats. Having first proposed them, the third party duly received none of the credit once they'd been nicked.

Now it's poor Ed that's left murmuring of how the older boys have pinched his toys. The vast majority of the media, having dismissed the idea that our politicians would ever dream of suggesting that the last 30 years of neo-liberal capitalism might not have in the long run benefited society as a whole, has also not changed its tune. Just as Miliband should be recognised as having succeeded in pushing the debate towards the left, as he also did (somewhat) through his championing of the still undefined "squeezed middle", we're once again going through the beginning of the month questioning of whether he's up to the job. He's not connecting with the voters, he's not capitalising on the coalition's official policy of destroying the economy, he's making typos in his tweets, and, most seriously of all, he's just not very attractive. The only pandas the public deem lovable are those behind railings in Edinburgh Zoo; the one leading the Labour party is simply unelectable.

It really is incredibly lazy, tiresome stuff, but it's what we've come to expect from the right-wing press. The tabloids have always tried to tear apart opposition Labour leaders; Tony Blair was the exception, and he was given a soft ride only due to how hopeless it had been decided John Major was. More to the point, Miliband still has incorrigible Blairites on his back, convinced that if only Brown had been overthrown the party would still be in power, or failing that miracle, are also unshakeable in their belief that if Ed hadn't shafted his brother Labour would now be 20 points ahead in the opinion polls. Their remedy, or at least the remedy of Dan Hodges, to do the Blairites generally a major disservice by suggesting his views are the same as theirs, is to be to the right of the coalition on everything: more hawkish on the deficit, harsher on welfare recipients, even more vicious on law and order. Hell, go the whole way: string up a banker or two and then, to balance it out, carpet bomb a sink estate. Try to follow that, David Cameron.

We should then be concerned when Hodges, albeit guardedly, welcomes anything Miliband announces. With the media having placed today's speech from Ed in almost the same "make or break" category as that of a football manager threatened with the sack, his big new direction on the deficit to be set out, it was always likely to be a damp squib. Labour's policy on the deficit, so critiqued and ridiculed by those who think it's the party's unreliability on the economy that is preventing them from making a significant breakthrough against the coalition, is difficult precisely because it depends on exactly how successful the government is in bringing it down. Osborne is now reducing it less quickly than Alistair Darling projected he would, and a double-dip recession will only exacerbate the differences. All Miliband has done today when you boil the speech down to its bare bones is admit that there will still be a deficit whoever wins the 2015 election.

Despite Hodges' tempered enthusiasm, this hasn't altered actual policy one jot. Yes, he's admitted that there won't be the money to return to "social democracy v2" as Peter Kellner has described it, but there's also no real detail on where further cuts might have to be made. The Miliband and Balls approach of criticising cuts while not explaining what they would do differently will then continue, the same one so bemoaned by those convinced it means the party has no chance of winning in 2015. At the same time, for those of us who don't think the public will still be entirely monomanical about the deficit come the next election, there was very little here to encourage us that Miliband can build on his initial push against unreformed capitalism. He talks as leaders must about fairness but only uses the word equality with in on the front of it, and that's to describe how the last government failed to reduce the gap between rich and poor. Some of the policies he did suggest could turn out to be harmful: quarterly reporting by businesses may encourage short-termism, but it also provides an insight into those that are failing due to poor management. Why also should it only be the over-75s that must be placed on the lowest tariffs by energy firms, and how indeed would that work in practice? The very policy that would make a huge difference, the living wage, was the one that he skirted around.

Thankfully, contrary to popular belief, Miliband still has plenty of time to get all of this right. David Cameron's EU treaty veto fiasco showed that barring a calamity, such as war with Iran, the coalition is bound together far more strongly than many of us believed. Should there be another recession, the idea that this is all Labour's fault will wear ever more thin. With three years still to go, as long as Ed continues to raise his game (ugh), the prevailing attitude towards him and at the same time Cameron and Osborne will begin to shift. Perhaps with time these media-led wobbles might then be reduced to mere yearly occurrences.

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