Ed Balls has acknowledged it was a mistake for Ed Miliband not to mention the public finances in his conference speech, as Labour was criticised by some of its own grandees for struggling to appeal to a broad range of voters.
The shadow chancellor largely defended Miliband’s performance in Manchester last month and said the party had set out clear policies on a higher minimum wage, a mansion tax, a 10p starting rate of tax and an energy price freeze.
However, he acknowledged it was unhelpful that Miliband left out a key passage about the deficit. “He said to me afterwards it was a mistake, and it was,” Balls said on Sky News.
With just over six months to go before the election, the Labour leader is under pressure to cement his lead in the polls in the face of two surveys showing the Conservatives slightly ahead. In contrast, a Populus poll on Friday suggested Miliband still has the edge.
Balls said: “As he said in his speech, he’s got to show himself and the policies of the next Labour government and he’s got seven months to do that and we are going to be there week after week.”
Several senior Labour figures have voiced their unease about Miliband’s strategy, including the former deputy prime minister Lord Prescott, who said the Labour leader was “far too timid”. The former New Labour fundraiser Lord Levy criticised the proposals for a mansion tax and called for the party to be more business friendly.
Writing in the Sunday Mirror, Prescott said Miliband needed policies to attract swing voters like Tony Blair was able to do in 1997. “Ed seems to be pursuing a core vote strategy of getting 31% of traditional Labour supporters with a few ex-Lib Dem voters,” he wrote. “He might as well have said at the end of his conference speech: go back to your constituencies and prepare for coalition.”
Although the mansion tax is overwhelmingly popular with voters, it appears to have antagonised some peers in the party. Levy, who was Blair’s chief fundraiser, told the Sunday Times: “I think [the mansion tax] is a policy that is totally inappropriate and I see no validity in that policy whatsoever.
“Do I believe that the party needs to be more close and friendly to business? Yes, I do.”
Lord Noon, a Labour peer and donor, said the mansion tax was a “hopeless and desperate idea”.
Over the weekend, Patrick Diamond, an adviser to the last government and now a vice-chair at the Policy Network thinktank, spoke of unease among some at the top of Labour about the party’s strategy.
“Key figures in Labour fear the party is reaching the limits of the 35% strategy, having inexplicably abandoned a One Nation agenda. They worry that the 35% strategy is damaging Labour in the English marginals, while it is committing Labour to policies that may be impossible to deliver in government.”
Labour is attempting to get back on to the front foot by highlighting the fiscal irresponsibility of Cameron’s promise of £7bn in tax cuts without saying where the money is coming from. Chris Leslie, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury, has written to the chancellor, George Osborne, challenging him to rule out an increase in VAT.
“You will understand why, until you set out where the £7bn is coming from, people will judge you on your track record of hitting working people while giving tax cuts to millionaires,” he wrote. “If it’s not VAT, where is the money going to come from – and which families and public services will pay the price?”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010