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Thursday, February 14, 2013 

Time to put flesh on the bones.

2013 so far hasn't exactly been an auspicious one so far for the Conservative party.  All their gambits, and there have been more than a couple in the past six weeks, seem to have come to naught.  The attempt to portray Labour as hopelessly out of touch by jumping on their voting against the 1% uprating in benefits has had no discernible impact on the polls.  By the same token, the promise of an in/out referendum on the EU come 2017 caused a slight ripple, which has since disappeared.  Lastly, the vote on gay marriage showed how deeply split the Tory party remains between what the modernisers believe will help them win the election, and what the err, conservatives believe is likely to hinder them.  Any goodwill which the announcement of the referendum generated was just as quickly snuffed out.

The latest setback for the Tories, the 12% percent lead for Labour in this month's Graun/ICM poll, does look slightly ominous.  Yes, there's sampling errors and the fact that all the other polls suggest Labour's lead remains about the 10 point margin, but ICM usually shows lower leads due to their reallocation of some don't know answers to the party they last voted for.  With the Lib Dems having voted against the boundary changes that would have given the Tories an advantage in around 30 or so constituencies, the chances of Cameron improving on his party's showing in 2010 become ever more slim.

Not that any of these problems for the natural party of government have been due to Labour being anything other than a generally efficient opposition.  Ed Miliband continues to put in solid performances at PMQs, often besting Cameron, yet you can hardly say that he's been the most visible of leaders since the new year.  Presumably some of that time was well spent preparing for today's speech, which is almost certainly his best since he became leader, his last two conference speeches being the only others of real note.

This isn't though down to the announcement of the twinned policies of reintroducing the 10p top rate of tax and paying for it through a mansion tax.  Whether the sums add up certainly isn't clear, as the band at which the 10p rate would be set depends on the amount raised through the tax.  It would arguably make more sense to do a wholesale revaluation of the council tax bands, as indeed the Institute for Fiscal Studies has since suggested, although such a policy would doubtless be vigorously opposed by those who have spent the last 20 years caring more about how much their house is worth than actually enjoying living in it.  As the IFS has also pointed out, reintroducing the 10p rate would just further complicate matters, especially when the government has been raising the personal allowance, which regardless of the downsides of the policy is a move everyone understands.  Their suggestion as to what could be done instead from the proceeds of the tax is either increasing tax credits, a policy Labour seem to be moving away from, or increasing the threshold at which employee national insurance contributions are paid, which would be the obvious step to take in line with the rise in the personal threshold.

No, the real reason why it's notable is that for the first time in years a party is making the case for running the economy differently. As Miliband said, it may well be true that we're in a race with the likes of India and China, but that doesn't mean our response should be to dump hard won rights, as the Tories want as part of their EU treaty renegotiation and Osborne has already introduced through his ludicrous shares for rights scheme. Emphasising how the 1% have taken 24 pence in every pound over the last 30 years and connecting it with how the Tories believe they still deserve a tax cut is exactly the sort of message Labour needs to keep making.

It doesn't therefore matter that New Labour did obeisance at the feet of the bankers, what matters now is that Miliband brings foward policies that make concrete his pledge to break with the era of the trickle down theory. It's fine saying Labour would break the stranglehold of the big six energy companies and stop the train companies ripping customers off on the most used routes, it's how they're going to go about doing so.  Welcome as proposals such as the introduction of a technical baccalaureate are, they're just small parts of what needs to be a far wider vision of what a "one nation" Britain would look like.

The polls suggest that for now at least this lack of detail doesn't matter, as silly as it seems to be saying that while the 10p rate and mansion tax are policies Labour would implement now if in government, they won't necessarily be in the manifesto come the election.  Much as this makes sense when for all we know the depression could yet extend to 2015 with all that would entail for government spending or rather the lack of it, the time is fast approaching when we need to know exactly what policies Labour will pledge to implement should they win.  Miliband has made a good start, and his repudiation of the worst of New Labour is now all but complete; it's what comes next that will decide whether or not David Cameron will helm a one term government.

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