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Miliband must seize chance to set out vision

In the last PMQs before the summer recess, Labour leader Ed Miliband was on buoyant form (Thumbnail credit Photo credit: bisgovuk)

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In the last PMQs before the summer recess, Labour leader Ed Miliband was on buoyant form. Drawing attention to a previous statement of the Prime Minister's, in which Cameron claimed he wanted to be Prime Minister because he thought he'd 'be good at it,' Miliband queried 'where did it all go wrong?'.

Mr Miliband has reason to be assured; he finds himself in his most stable position since becoming Labour leader. Dissenting voices within the party have quietened, the Coalition is in disarray and a recent YouGov poll gave him a higher personal approval rating than either Cameron or Nick Clegg. An advisor to Ed muses that 'there is still a long way to go, but we are in a different world from that of 2011'. Indeed, an editorial from a usually sceptical Times contends that Miliband has successfully architected a 'viable opposition'.

How has Miliband found himself in this more settled situation? Is he just riding the wave of Coalition incompetence, or has he managed to portray himself as a potential prime minister?

Since the budget, the Coalition has not been running smoothly. Norman Tebbit, a former chairman of the Conservative Party, recently derided it as 'amateurish.' The government has had to carry out a series of U-turns - on taxes to pasties, fuel and charitable donations.

The cut in the top rate of tax was handled indelicately, rendering the government's mantra 'we're all in this together' somewhat vacuous. Along with Treasury Minister Chloe Smith's blubbering performance on Newsnight, the government has undeniably lost some of its credibility.

The notion of two parties responsibly working together in the national interest chimed with the public for a time. But this only works as long as the government is seen as being competent. Cameron, who has previously looked so at ease in the office of the prime minister, has cause for concern. Labour has had an almost uninterrupted lead in the polls for over a year, but until recently Cameron's personal ratings bucked that trend. This has changed: a recent YouGov/Sunday Times poll showed a 10% fall in support, to 35%, for the Prime Minister since January, while Miliband has shot up from 18% to 34%.

Credit must therefore be given to Miliband. He has looked at his best, and even statesman like, when taking the initiative and being bold. He took the lead responding to the phone hacking scandal by calling for a full and independent enquiry, and has acted with similar resolve over the Libor scandal. Compared with Cameron's dithering, his decisiveness and firm action has resonated with a disillusioned public.

Radical shifts are taking place in our society - in the economy, our relationship with the EU, and opinions toward banking. We are in, as Rafael Behr of the New Statesman puts it, 'an age of political climate change'. Osborne and Cameron do not seem to be appreciating this. Stuck in the rut of short-sightedness, Osborne inadvisably saw the Libor scandal as a mere opportunity to smear Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls.

Perhaps Miliband is latching onto such paradigm shifts in a way which Cameron and Osborne are not. In his widely ridiculed conference speech back in September 2011, he spoke of the need for responsible capitalism, making a distinction between the 'producers' and 'predators' in our society.

In light of the Libor fixing, just one disgrace in a series of scandals, Miliband seems to be increasingly in tune with the public mood. In the same poll mentioned above, Miliband leads Cameron by 19 points on the question on whether each leader is in touch with ordinary people. Cameron and Osborne are stuttering, looking now more than ever as at the behest of a vilified financial and political elite - part of the problem rather than the solution.

James Macintyre and Mehdi Hassan in their biography of Ed Miliband describe him as 'Thatcheresque in his ambition'. Thatcher was the last true visionary to be in No 10. She recognised that there was profound and widespread disillusionment with a bloated state and over bearing trade unions. She knew something had to change, and her premiership embodied something much more substantial than the comparatively juvenile Labour 'Third Way' and Tory 'Big Society'.

This mid-term bounce provides an opportunity for Miliband to define himself much more clearly to the electorate who still do not really know what he stands for. Yes, he can outflank Cameron in whipping up populist anger about morally depraved bankers or over-mighty media moguls.

But on the issues which decide elections - health, education, crime and most significantly the economy - he still has some way to go. When asked who would make a better Prime Minister, Cameron still leads by 10%. Does Miliband cower - at his best only when reacting to events?

Or will he use the boldness which we now know he is capable of in defining what he stands for and articulating his vision for the country? His conference speech this September will go some way to answering this question.

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