It is about time that Labour supporters dropped the idea that Ed Miliband will be replaced by some charming, witty alternative and instead started to work with what they have got
This week sees the British Labour Party conference take place in Manchester. It represents the best opportunity yet for party leader Ed Miliband to convince the electorate that a picture of viable centre-left politics
is slowly but surely emerging from the shadows of the coalition. Doing so will not be easy, despite the rather complacent optimism of some in the wake of recent double-digit polling leads. A 10 point mid-term advantage might seem substantial at first glance but it is actually the very least Labour could hope for, considering the half-time report filed by the current government.
Deepening recession, increased borrowing, a youth employment crisis, a trebling of tuition fees and competition-led restructuring of the National Health Service would be enough in themselves to explain the swing in polling. Add in ATOS, Leveson, 'pleb-gate', Andy Coulson and the GCSE marking debacle and it soon becomes apparent that Labour should really be pulling much further ahead than they currently are.
Many lay the blame for this at the door of Miliband - who they see as unelectable, uncharismatic and underwhelming. Whatever the truth of these accusations - it is probably about time that Labour supporters dropped the idea that he will be replaced by some charming, witty alternative and instead started to work with what they have got: an odd-looking, bookish man who has proved surprisingly resilient and increasingly intent on reform.
Besides which, despite media insistence to the contrary, Britain operates a parliamentary system not a presidential one. History shows that the electorate have time and again looked beyond the figurehead of a party and made policy-led voting decisions. In addition, findings which show that people consider Conservative Party leader David Cameron a more believable prime minister than Miliband seem deeply flawed. After all - who seems the more 'believable' circus performer: the clown on the unicycle juggling fire or the man harboring ambitions to one day do the job?
What Labour, and Miliband in particular, cannot afford to do is simply sit back and hope that voters decide to punish the coalition by voting them out. Much is made of the parallels between football and politics but one thing is for sure, goal-hanging is seen as the preserve of the least skillful kid in the playground. There is absolutely no question that in order to be effective in government, Labour will need to win a serious and considered mandate for its policies - a process which begins in earnest in the conference rooms of Manchester.
Early signs are startling. Labour seems to have acknowledged that it lacks credibility on the economy and instead is launching a series of surprisingly aggressive proto-policies that point to widespread, systemic reform of the way the United Kingdom does business. Banks have already won a number of substantial victories in watering down the Vickers report to the point of meaninglessness but Miliband has been nothing short of bullish in promising to uphold not only its letter, but its spirit. Already this week, he told banks unwilling to ringfence their retail arms that Labour is prepared to legislate to ensure that they have no choice in the matter. This is unlikely to have gone down particularly well within the City. But then again neither will his insistence that banks introduce transferable account numbers, in order to allow customers to change banks if they disagree with their practice.
The tone is certainly more declarative than we have been used to over the last two years or so and it will no doubt be welcomed by those who have been frustrated by perceived inertia during that period. Additional declarations that Labour will reintroduce the 50 per cent tax rate and repeal the NHS Bill will also be music to the ears of those, who have been straining to hear the melody of opposition only to be met with the blank twang of a tuning fork. There is a feeling in the air that this approach represents something of a breakthrough. That rather than seeking to mitigate the unfairness of business practice through pumping capital into the welfare system, Labour is seeking instead to put increasing pressure on banks and businesses - to keep their own houses in order and negate the need for the state to intervene in order to pick up the pieces.
There is logic to this approach, and importantly, there seems to be a public appetite for it too. Forcing banks to fulfill their primary social function of safeguarding and lending, ensuring businesses pay a living wage and maintain reasonable ratios between their highest and lowest earners, and encouraging increased social mobility across income brackets, are all policies that stand boldly in opposition to the approach of the current government.
The biggest challenge that remains for both Labour and Miliband is convincing the voting public that they mean what they say and have the wherewithal to follow through on an agenda that would significantly shift the balance of power between commerce and government. On this point, there is understandable scepticism among an electorate that is hurting badly and which looks set to continue its suffering for the foreseeable future. Labour certainly has a lot of making up to do and more than a handful of black marks on its character. Although if you look extremely closely, somewhere in Manchester the outline of an alternative is being sketched out by a surprisingly steady hand.
Keiran Goddard is an author, journalist and communications consultant