The young woman who stood up to ask Ed Miliband a question at his after-speech Q&A hit the nail on the head. “We’re puzzled and uncertain”, she said; “Do you believe in austerity or not?” This prompted immediate acclaim, and she promptly got a standing ovation. “No”, replied Ed, “but we have to control spending”. So does he believe in austerity or not? No, if it means being aligned with the hateful Tories who’ve cut people’s living standards to ribbons over the last 5 years. Or yes, if it means securing a reputation for toughness on the economy. So uncertainty continues. This is smart if it keeps people more or less together, but bewildering and disillusioning in that nobody quite knows exactly what you stand for. There comes a point where having-it-both-ways begins seriously to undermine credibility, and some (obviously a great many in the TUC audience) are clearly starting to feel that way.
Ed Miliband is not only a very decent man, honest and with integrity, but also effective. He has actually been more effective than any previous Leader of the Opposition, though this seems to be little recognised and certainly he hasn’t received the credit he deserves. He has taken on very powerful adversaries, and won. He defeated Murdoch over BskyB, may well succeed in facing down the press over Leveson, and over Syria it can plausibly be argued that he changed global policy. Those are very remarkable achievements for a Leader of the Opposition, lacking any executive authority. But at the same time, within his own party his boldness gives way to seeking unity above all else. His inner instinct is to be transformational, a left-wing Thatcher even, but his politician’s caution trumps that while he has no direct power. How that equation will change if and when he does achieve power is as unpredictable as it was with Thatcher and Blair.
But in terms of policy formulation and staking out recognisable territory the riddle that is Ed Miliband becomes offputtingly negative. It is said his team are constantly warning him against any premature revelation of manifesto commitments for fear that they will be subjected to endless battering by an unreconstructed Tory press. Thus ir’s clever tactics to stay mum. But that way runs into despairing unbelief among his own committed supporters, as we saw today. Yet it is not impossible to square this circle. Not disclosing all your best cards until the chosen moment obviously makes sense, but it doesn’t rule out gradually revealing a few of them, enough to convey to patiently waiting activists that the leader gets it, and that their patience is not in vain. Time for Ed to reassess his tactics so that showing minimum exposure of flank to the hated Tory press doesn’t destabilise his core supporters too far.