By Tim Montgomerie
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Conservatives have had some fun at Ed Miliband's expense this week. Today's Sun revelled in Ed Miliband's "Blackbusters" gaffe. "Silly Mili", it laughed. Guido Fawkes relaunched Iain Martin's Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband Association as the Don't Unseat Ed Miliband Association. "Save Ed Miliband" is the three word prayer of every Number 10 strategist. Tories are probably right to think that "Odd Ed" is a very weak candidate for 10 Downing Street but if it's hard to regard the Labour leader as a potent threat we shouldn't think the same of the Labour Party as a whole.
It may have been a difficult week for the Labour leader but this was one of the more interesting weeks for the Labour Party as a whole. There were real signs that the reality-based wing of the party was finally asserting itself…
- First up was Liam Byrne with his argument that Labour needed to return to a welfare state that William Beveridge would actually recognise. Iain Duncan Smith's shadow argued against the spiralling housing benefit budget, the way the system maintained people in long-term unemployment and, third, insufficient encouragement of thrift. As George Eaton blogged there wasn't much substance in Byrne's article but it was a movement towards the ground occupied by the majority of the British people.
- Second was Shadow Defence Secretary Jim Murphy's identification of £5 billion of defence cuts. Mr Murphy rejected populism on spending and said that by spelling out the cuts his party would move towards credibility. Despite the claims of a Tory press release Mr Murphy did spell out cuts very clearly.
- Third – and least reported – was the Shadow Education Secretary's argument for a longer school day. The Coalition has already advocated this itself but Stephen Twigg's focus on how it could prepare more disadvantaged children for the world of the work was in tune with his party's best working class roots.
In his interview with today's Guardian Mr Miliband gave strong support to Jim Murphy. "It is exactly what Ed Balls said he wanted shadow ministers to do," he said, "to show that we do not oppose all the cuts." The Labour leader continued: "There are lots of cuts we are not going to be able to reverse. That is the way it is. To say otherwise would not be credible." More audaciously the Labour leader attempted a relaunch of Ed Balls. Ed Balls, Mr Miliband insisted, was "the guy that invented the spending freeze 1997-98".
The Conservatives ended 2011 on a high with the veto but our party's brand remains much weaker than it should be. I now have a number 11 to add to my list of ten big electoral challenges for the Conservative Party. 50% of voters told YouGov (PDF) that the Conservative Party only appeals to part of Britain. Only 19% said the same of Labour.That's shocking and a terrible barrier to achieving progress in the north and urban Britain. It is a reputation that the Lib Dems are actively reinforcing.
Labour is not in the same position as the Tories in 1997, 2001 or 2005. Because of the vagaries of our electoral system Ed Miliband starts with 257 MPs sat alongside him. That's nearly 100 closer to the finishing line than Hague, IDS or Howard had. One more heave could easily get Labour into the sort of hung parliament territory that could see it join forces with a Liberal Democrat party led by the likes of Vince Cable or Tim Farron. The Conservatives cannot afford to be complacent. Labour may or may not accelerate steps towards fiscal sanity in 2012. We must take decisive steps to establish our one nation credentials.