Labour: The Eds gamble
Oppositions always come under sustained media pressure to spell out what they'd do if they were in power.
However, those who've been in opposition always advise their successors to say as little as possible. Spelling out your policies risks them either coming under sustained attack by the enemy or, if they're any good, being stolen by them.
Shadow chancellors have been particularly wary ever since Labour's shadow Budget provided the Tories with the ammunition to pull off a shock election victory in 1992. Gordon Brown's promises running up to the 1997 election were so small as to be instantly forgettable.
George Osborne used to boast that after announcing his plan to cut inheritance tax in 2007 he didn't spell out a single significant proposal for another two years (and when he did they were plans for cuts, not more spending).
So why have the two Eds decided to make a whole series of promises now, a full eighteen months before an election? Why risk the Tories running a repeat of that 1992 "Double whammy" campaign in which John Major defeated Neil Kinnock by deploying a warning of the dangers of higher taxes and higher mortgage rates under a Labour government?
I'm told that there are three key reasons for what the party's high command itself calls a "gamble" :
- to counter public cynicism that any politician can make a difference. Voters are deeply cynical about promises to make things better. Clear, specific, tangible pledges about childcare or the "bedroom tax" or after-school clubs will, it's hoped, cut through in a way normal conference oratory does not
- to address the Ed Miliband problem. Even those close to him acknowledge that he has a reputation for the worthy and wordy intellectual analysis (remember "pre-distribution" or "producers versus predators"?). What the party workers who knock on doors are demanding is something concrete - "a retail offer" - to sell to sceptical voters.
- to fill the time. This may sound facetious point but it is not. The introduction of a five year fixed parliament means that this is the first opposition in history which has known in advance that it has to wait so long without even the sniff of an election. In the past, pre-election party conferences came after one, two or, at most, three years as speculation mounted about when the prime minister might go to the polls. Labour has had to plan to fill four conferences and has decided it can't wait any longer to break cover.
More pledges are promised later in the week and I get a growing sense that Ed Miliband has something quite significant up his sleeve for his speech tomorrow.