On Tuesday, Ed Miliband told the British people: “In 2015 you’ll be asking, ‘Am I better off now than five years ago?’ And we already know the answer for millions of families will be ‘No.’”
He’s right. But there are two other questions people will be asking: "Who do I blame for the fact I am worse off?" and "Who do I trust to ensure I am better off in five years’ time?" He already knows the answer to those two questions too, but you can understand why he didn’t want to tell the Labour Party Conference.
People aren’t stupid. They know that the last recession did permanent damage to our economy. They don’t hold Labour solely to blame for that recession and the resulting debt crisis, but they do think they were partially responsible by failing to properly regulate our banks and most importantly by borrowing too much in the good times.
They know too that whoever won the last election was going to have to take tough decisions to deal with the deficit. Here’s what the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies said back in April 2010:
The key domestic policy issue for the next Parliament will be how best to implement a combination of spending cuts and tax raising measures... this will be painful: most likely it will come from a combination of reductions in the quality and/or quantity of public services provided and families being made directly worse off through cuts to welfare benefits and increases in tax.
So yes, Ed, people are feeling the squeeze but they understand that this squeeze is the inevitable consequence of the trashing of our public finances by the government of which you were a member.
And what of the future? Who do the public trust to ensure they are better off in five years’ time? Because David Cameron took the tough decisions to start bringing the deficit down – decisions Ed Miliband opposed every step of the way – our economy is now returning to growth. Unemployment is falling. Wages are rising. People are still feeling the squeeze because wages aren’t yet rising by more than inflation, but they can see things are getting better.
And they can also see that Labour haven’t learned anything from their mistakes. Having borrowed too much in the good times, having been wrong about how to deal with the deficit, Ed Miliband is remarkably still calling for more borrowing. If he got his way, the markets would quickly lose faith in our ability to pay off our debts and interest rates would rise, choking off the recovery and hitting family budgets hard. All the pain we’ve been through over the last three and a half years would be for nothing – we’d be back where we started. That’s why people have no faith in Labour’s alternative economic team.
To be fair, Ed Miliband did try to address the leadership question. This is what he had to say:
Here’s the thing about David Cameron: he may be strong at standing up to the weak, but he’s always weak when it comes to standing up against the strong. That’s the difference between me and David Cameron.
The facts suggest otherwise. When David Cameron stood up for Britain at the the EU summit and used the veto, Ed Miliband made it clear he would have folded. When David Cameron wanted to stand up to a brutal dictator who used chemical weapons against his own people, Ed Miliband couldn’t carry his party with him and folded. And week after week faced with the choice of siding with the British people or his paymasters, Ed Miliband folds and does as he is told by the trade union bosses. He’s no leader and the British people can see it.
There was a poignant example in his speech. He mentioned two market traders he met in Chesterfield, who he said told him: “This country doesn’t seem to be rewarding our hard work and effort, there seem to be some people getting something for nothing.” And then he said nothing in the rest of his speech about what he would do to address their concern. Why? Because he is too weak to side with the British people and confront those in his own party who believe in unlimited welfare.
Ed Miliband showed us again this week that he can speak passionately without notes. But he also showed us again that on the key issues of the economy and welfare he hasn’t learned, he can’t take tough decisions and he isn’t ready to be prime minister.
This article first appeared on The Telegraph website on 26 September 2013.