Nick Wood is founder of Media Intelligence Partners and former
Conservative Party Communications Director.
Has Ed Miliband turned into a giant panda? That was the unhelpful but not unreasonable question posed by former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith the other day as she likened Tian Tian's lengthy but unproductive pregnancy to the Labour leader's failure to produce a single policy of note despite a three year gestation.
Next week, at his conference in Brighton, Ed may confound us all by having triplets. But the smart money is on him keeping us all guessing for a long time to come. After the worthy but underwhelming Lib Dem gathering in Glasgow, the political landscape still looks like a scene from Narnia's frozen north.
Nick Clegg and his dwindling band of supporters have been stuck on around 10 per cent of the vote for as long as anyone can remember. UKIP, under the rumbustious Nigel Farage, have fallen back from the glory days of the May local elections but are still in double figures, while Labour holds a narrowing
but still decisive lead over the Tories.
Nick, despite some decent press reviews, failed to effect a thaw last week. Can Ed do any better?
Not if he models himself on Edinburgh Zoo's most celebrated if enigmatic inmate. So far the Labour leader has treated his conference speeches as a largely metaphysical exercise. A couple of years ago we had a now forgotten denunciation of "predatory capitalism" and last year, in a bid to steal Tory clothes, New Labour was replaced with One Nation Labour – ironically an echo of Tony Blair's one-time boast that his party was the political wing of the British people.
But in a world of ever-shorter attention spans and declining interest in party politics, such philosophical abstractions stand little chance of cutting through to a distracted electorate. If Miliband wants to propel his party's poll ratings into the 40s, he has got to come up with some concrete and appealing proposals – always difficult for a party of the Left when the money has run out. And his task of promoting brotherly love has not been made any easier by Damian McBride's graphic reminder of the venomous rivalries of the Blair-Brown years.
Blair had his pledge cards. Their content may have been mundane, but they did give substance to all the hype surrounding New Labour. Miliband cannot even give a coherent answer to how Labour would address questions about levels of tax, spending and borrowing across the next Parliament, let alone offer clear answers to how Labour would tackle welfare reform, immigration, the NHS or schools.
So the suspicion remains that Miliband will stick to generalities next week. The political landscape may be frozen, but it is frozen in a way that offers comfort to the Labour leader. The inherent bias of the electoral system means that if Labour were to poll just 36 per cent at the next election, the Conservatives 33 per cent, the Lib Dems 14 per cent and UKIP 7 per cent, Miliband would have an overall majority of more than 20 seats.
Labour's panda strategy – relying on a core vote, bruised by austerity and better motivated than in the dog days of 2010, plus Lib Dem defectors and Tory defectors to UKIP – may be effective even if it is far from magnificent. Tories, cheered by growing signs of economic recovery, have to concede that the cards remain stacked against them – a point rammed home by Lord Ashcroft's poll of Tory marginals showing a double digit Labour lead fuelled by a UKIP surge that is far from dissipated.
Of course, Ed knows he cannot give another politics seminar in Brighton. To borrow another of Mr Blair's pet phrases, a few eye-catching initiatives will be unveiled to an increasingly restive audience. But nonetheless the Labour leader is praying that the political permafrost lasts all the way to polling day.