As Ed Miliband closed Labour’s 2014 Party Conference in Manchester yesterday, the Leader of the Opposition outlined a ten year plan of policies for the UK and his vision of Labour as a vehicle of change for disenfranchised members of the economy and the electorate.
In Manchester Ed Miliband has set out the framework for Labour’s election pitch for 2015. It is redistributive, both in terms of the economy and political power. The thematic priorities he has chosen reflect his long held concern about widespread disengagement with traditional politics and the lessons learned from the intense debate over Scottish independence.
Mr Miliband’s fear is that , in the context of widespread cynicism about the ability of traditional politics to deliver tangible results, Labour’s election pitch would not gain traction with sufficient voters to carry his party across the winning post, however deep the unpopularity of the Coalition parties.
He therefore sees his first task as securing relevance. Hence a resolute focus on issues which have generally played well for him so far and which polling shows to be high on voters concerns – namely the cost of living, the supply of decent jobs offering good salaries, and improved core public services, in particular health.
The overall offering is set in the context of an economy that is not delivering across society, allied to the message that the political system as it currently operates cannot deliver either. In this the Labour leader seeks to echo the message he sees conveyed in Scotland by the high vote for independence and in England by the resilience of support for UKIP – namely that voter discontent is so entrenched that support for radical alternatives, outside the mainstream offerings looks like being a dominant feature in next year’s election.
So Mr Miliband chose to head his pre-election conference speech with the acknowledgement that voters have simply lost faith. His decision is to position his party within that narrative, claiming that the political system and the economy can be reset to engage with and deliver on voters core concerns. By contrast his narrative seeks to position the Conservative party as inextricably linked to the conventional approaches that most people would now see as no longer effective.
Running through Labour’s narrative are calls for reform and restructuring of those institutions and organisations that he sees as personifying the old way of doing things, including banks and energy companies. His redistributive politics sees it as attractive to call on the resources of these to support additional public investment, and in Manchester he added tobacco firms to the list. His redistributive economics sees higher taxes for the top earners and the owners of the most expensive properties as legitimate sources of support for the future development of public services. The political calculation is that these choices set clear dividing lines between his party and the Conservatives, and by choosing a wide enough range of measures that establish clear differentiation he will seek to tackle one of the underlying factors for voter scepticism, namely that the mainstream parties are ‘all the same’. The breadth of that perception now, in Mr Miliband’s mind requires a move away from a narrow race for the centre. Instead it requires a starker choice. His strategy is to position Labour, a mainstream party, as a vehicle for change of a sufficient degree to woo back voters who would otherwise abstain or support UKIP.
Ed Miliband has deliberately decided to set this down as a national leadership challenge. This is designed to reinforce his strategy of making the contest a real choice and also to address the current public attitude towards his own credentials as a potential Prime Minister.
Over the next eight months he will aim to take every available opportunity to reiterate the challenge and to reinforce his programme of differentiation.
As he said after his election as party leader, it’s time to move on from New Labour.