Tom Richmond: Miliband must put passion and clarity at the heart of policy

THESE are the most unpredictable of times. Every passing day brings a new political or economic challenge for Britain's first coalition Government since Winston Churchill held the country together during World War Two's darkest days.

Yet, despite the toughest public spending round in at least 30 years, domestic politics has become complacently predictable – coalition politicians say that the spending cuts are necessary, while Labour accuse them of damaging Britain's future prospects and consigning many millions to a life of endless poverty.

It cannot go on like this – and it is up to Ed Miliband, the new Labour leader, to start to inject some passion into his party with his policy review. He's taken the hint, after two weeks of paternity leave, that he needs to raise his game and halt Labour's drift.

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The debonair Doncaster MP has shown that he's the master of the soundbite – I note that he interrupted his "bonding" with his new son to step in front of the television cameras and congratulate Prince William on his engagement to Kate Middleton.

He's also proved surprisingly adept at Prime Minister's Questions – like him, I, too, am becoming frustrated at David Cameron's ability, just like Tony Blair and Gordon Brown before him, to ignore those issues that are politically unpalatable.

The challenge, from Miliband's point of view, is pinning Cameron down. Effective scrutiny will be vital if the coalition's spending cuts are to be delivered in a manner that eradicates genuine waste, protects those who society has a duty to stand by and guarantees the country's national security.

Yet this basic function of opposition will become increasingly ineffectual if Labour does not come to terms with its election defeat – and start preparing a coherent manifesto for the 2015 election (assuming the coalition survives every intervening obstacle).

It has to recognise that the recession was a political game-changer, despite Brown's initial handling of the banking crisis, and that the public are likely to become less disposed in the future to those parties with uncosted policies. Due diligence should be the name of the game. As well as constructive opposition, voters expect a properly financed alternative to be developed.

As Chancellor George Osborne, a Eurosceptic and opponent of the Euro, said yesterday following Ireland's bailout: "'I told you so' is not much of an economic policy."

Miliband and his shadow cabinet have to consider that Britain may, in fact, be enjoying a sustained period of growth prior to the next election – manufacturing, for example, is now growing at the fastest rate since 1994 – and Labour needs to wake up to this prospect.

So far, the party's approach has been unconvincing – despite Alan Johnson, the well-meaning former Home Secretary, being made Shadow Chancellor. Johnson, for example, has raised the prospect of reducing the 50p tax-rate for top-earners; his leader, no doubt with one eye on the unions who supported his successful campaign, says this will not be so.

Equally, the two men have divergent views on the merits of a graduate tax – even though tuition fees has become one of the political issues. Again, this does not bode well – Labour needs to be presenting an united front.

And, on Johnson's home patch of Hull, he is aghast that funding for the city's Gateway housing renewal programme has been cut, an ambitious plan to transform inner-city estates across the North that had been the brainchild of John Prescott. Yet, while his concerns are laudable, given the number of people whose dream of having an adequate council home have been dashed, the issue on this, and every other spending plan, is a fundamental one: where is the money coming from?

That apart, Johnson does appear to be more realistic than his leader – hence his comments on the 50p tax rate – but the difference between the two men will play into the coalition's hands and divert attention away from its own judgements.

By embarking upon on a policy review process comparable to the exercise that Cameron undertook when he became Tory leader five years ago, or when Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 and ditched the party's fabled Clause Four on common ownership, it allows Miliband to play for time, and even road-test ideas in public, before coming to a final decision. It also shows that he recognises the need for change.

He does, also, have one advantage that was denied to Cameron. Labour's core support base is still far stronger than the Conservative's – it can count upon the substantial public sector payroll vote and trade union support.

However, this was not enough at the last election – and it will not be sufficient in 2015 unless Ed Miliband wins back the "Middle England" voters who were pivotal to Blair's three election successes. That is why he needs to be totally transparent over policy and, more crucially, how every commitment will be funded. Simply waiting for the coalition to implode will only play into David Cameron and Nick Clegg's hands in the long-term. He has been warned.