David Blackburn

Miliband’s Oldham dilemma

Miliband’s Oldham dilemma
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Joy. It will be a campaigning Christmas, now that the Oldham by-election is likely to be held on 13th January. The Labour party is much exercised. The permanently outraged Chris Bryant says it is a ‘disgrace’ that politics will sully the ‘major Christian festival of the year’ – the lapsed cleric seems to have forgotten the election’s proximity to Easter. More importantly, fewer students will be in Oldham on 13th January to serve ‘judgement’ on the government, as Hilary Benn put it in the Commons this morning before adding that the government is ‘running scared’.

By-elections are determined by local issues, as one would expect. But Benn’s statement perhaps reveals how Miliband intends to use the campaign to define his leadership. ‘Friend of the students’ is an effective pose for the opportunist. I don’t expect Miliband to be as naive or fanciful as successive Liberal Democrat, not least because he has to commit to a policy other than straight opposition. But Miliband is fixated on the tuition fee settlement and the abolition of educational maintenance allowances, and concentrated on them at yesterday’s PMQs and in a TV interview today.

The Staggers’ George Eaton argues that Miliband’s quiet start is a deliberate attempt not to raise expectations. If so, it doesn’t say much for the leader’s confidence. He will have to offer coherence beyond sympathy for students throughout this by election.  He should be heed Ed Balls’ advice (if not Balls’ exact sentiments) and talk about the economy. Balls told the Daily Politics yesterday:

‘The issue is can we persuade the country the conservatives have got the economy wrong. We have not succeeded in doing that yet, that is our challenge in the coming years. Personally I’d rather he had done a second question on the economy. I think it’s really important that we get this message out there.’

Miliband has no such message at present.