Peter Hoskin

Miliband’s first hundred days in five points

Miliband's first hundred days in five points
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Ok, so Ed Miliband's one hundred day anniversary actually falls on Tuesday – but what's a couple of days between bloggers? Besides, even with two days to go, it's safe to say that his will be a peculiar century. By some scientific measures, Labour are doing alright; sucking up Lib Dem voters to push ahead of the Tories in opinion polls. But that belies what has been an unconvincing start from their new leader. Here's my quick five-point guide to his bitter honeymoon:

1) What's the economy, stupid? One of Miliband's boldest moves to date was his appointment of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor. Indeed, at the time, I suggested that it could be among the defining moments of his leadership – and not so much because he'd reached out to one of his brother's most effusive supporters, but because it meant a rejection of Ballsonomics. By not picking Ed Balls or Yvette Cooper for the role, Miliband had turned down their No Cuts approach to the deficit, instead choosing the more sensible Darling plan espoused by Johnson. Putting aside Johnson's lack of economic expertise, it was a responsible move, and one that augured well for a mature debate about the public finances.

But it hasn't quite worked out like that in practice. What we've seen since Johnson's appointment is similar to Miliband's victory speech in Manchester: a neither-here-nor-there wavering that is meant to appeal to all-comers, but is too ill-defined to properly appeal to anyone. So, here, Miliband talks about the importance of cuts and of deficit reduction. But, there, he attacks each and every cut and tax hike that the coalition introduces, without suggesting any reasonable alternatives. "We no longer have our hands on the books," he says, "so we can't give any details." But that's not going to work for long, when even the broader message is so confused and inconsistent.

Stir in the very public disagreements between Miliband and Johnson, and Labour's position on the economy is even more difficult to nail down. Meanwhile, the coalition strides on, with a clear argument on the deficit that it will keep voicing until the economy starts motoring again.

2) I'll let you know what I stand for ... in two years. And it's not just the economy where Labour are uncertain – you can throw in every other policy area too. The only two specific policies that I'm sure will be in their next manifesto are Miliband's living wage and an extension of the 50p rate. Other than that, all is in flux while Labour go through the process of a two-year policy review. A worthwhile exercise for a party with time on its hands, perhaps. But it won't reassure those who feel that Miliband's leadership is directionless anyway, and that his elder brother had a clearer vision for the party. The event where Miliband launched the policy review may as well be a metaphor for his leadership so far: an announcement that he'd have something to say in future.

3) The Big Idea. It there has been one overarching idea to Miliband's politics – his Big Society, as it were – then it's that of the "squeezed middle". And it's fertile enough ground. However you define that middle, it's hard to deny that swathes of voters will feel the squeeze of reduced benefits, rising costs and higher taxes over the next few years - and that a smart appeal to them could pay electoral dividends. But that's where Miliband gets stuck, the smart appeal bit. Not only does he not have the policies to back up the rhetoric, but he doesn't seem to have the rhetoric to back up the idea. His stuttering discussion of the "squeezed middle" on Today was one of the deepest low-points of his first hundred days.

4) Good Ed, Bad Ed. In the absence of any real policy, we've had to gauge Miliband largely by his public performances (for which, read PMQs). And, like so much else in his leadership, the signs are uncertain and inconsistent. I mean, this is the man who trumped the naysayers by defeating David Cameron in their first bout at the dispatch box, only to sink a few weeks later to one of the most inept PMQs performances in recent memory. "Son of Brown" stung him at the time, and it still resonates now.

5) I'm not Red ('til I'm red in the face). Forget the fratricide for a moment, the most damaging aspect of Ed Miliband's leadership victory was how it was accomplished by union votes. Ordinary party members didn't vote for him. His own MPs didn't vote for him. But the unions did – and it fuelled the "Red Ed" bonfire that had already been lit at his feet. Since then, Miliband has gone out of his way to extinguish the idea that he's in the union bosses' pockets, but the process has been a muddled one. At times, he has seemed so scared of the Red label that he has shirked clear attacking opportunities against the coalition. At others, he has set himself up for criticism by distancing himself from the unions in nothing more that a superficial sense. One of the political dynamics to watch in 2011 will be whether Ed Miliband gets roped in with the union militancy, or whether he successfully defines himself against it.

So there we have it, one hundred days. A rather arbitrary anniversary, to be sure – but that doesn't mean it is without worth. As the dictum has it, first impressions matter. And Ed Miliband's first impressions have, well, failed to impress. The hope for him is that, with his punchier new team, and a series of coalitions stress tests to come, he can make progress in the months to come. If he doesn't, then expect the simmering internal conflict between supporters of Ed and supporters of David to bubble to the surface.