Labour’s got the policy, but its press machine is still a shambles
Today's announcement of plans for a massive house building programme is a rare instance of Labour being on the right side of an issue.
Few policies could be more useful than Ed Miliband's pledge to build one million new homes.
Lack of supply has driven house prices out of the reaches of ordinary people. High rents have sucked money from low and middle earners to the rich, giving them less money to spend and suppressing consumer demand. Housing benefit has funnelled taxpayer money towards unscrupulous private landlords while wastefully sucking money from the Treasury.
Best of all, it is an easy policy to explain to the public without any of Miliband's trademark academic contortions. It employs people, it helps striving workers, it controls house price rises and it gives back more than it costs, particularly when interest rates are stuck at the base level.
Compared to George Osborne's housing plans, it is positively saintly. Funding for Lending and Help to Buy will inflate house prices, threatening a new bubble. It is a remarkable thing to see a chancellor specifically encourage the precise behaviour which got us into this mess in the first place. Nevertheless, and despite his incessant pinning of the blame for our economic woes on Labour, that is the sight Osborne presents us with.
He is not illiterate. He is irresponsible. His job as election chief for the Conservatives has overruled his responsibilities as chancellor of the exchequer. His desire to reward property owners, who are more likely to vote Tory, has overruled his responsibility to the 'strivers' he purports to be so keen to help.
Osborne spends much of his life searching out political dividing lines with Labour on immigration, welfare and other subjects which tend to get people hot under the collar.
Housing is, unfortunately, not one of those issues, but by happy coincidence Labour has found itself on the right side of the debate – both in reality and in the public mind. The Labour position is one which would be attractive and easily understandable to voters and which happens to be economically and morally correct.
Whether the party can sell it is another matter.
Over the last 24 hours the only questions party officials have been asked have been about Damian McBride and HS2. The McBride scandal was unavoidable. But the HS2 coverage was as foreseeable as rain on a gloomy Sunday.
Balls meandered over to the side of the stage during his speech yesterday, casually picked up a hot potato, stood stroking it for a while, and then placed it delicately down again, seemingly certain that it could have done his hands no damage.
The shadow chancellor would be well advised to drop the policy altogether. The £50 billion price tag is far in excess of its purported benefits and even if they were not, an opposition desperate to cost a progressive policy package while sticking to Tory spending plans could use the leeway it gives them.
But Balls' decision to raise worries about HS2 without actually coming to a new position has nearly derailed the entire conference.
This morning Harriet Harman insisted Labour did not have a new position on HS2. That is absurd. Balls moved on from warning he would act if the project went over budget to saying that it might not be worth it even if it stayed in budget (which it won't). Perhaps Balls was trying to shore up his own image as a no-nonsense chancellor in waiting. Either way, it gave the impression of the right hand not knowing what the left hand was doing. A U-turn on a policy Labour itself instigated needed to be handled delicately and purposefully, not nonchalantly toyed with in public.
Miliband's pre-conference interview on Andrew Marr's sofa on Sunday highlighted the party's other problem: their leader speaks like a robot, answers questions he sets himself, and is increasingly developing a lexicon which cannot be understood by the public.
His reflex statement, that he wants to approach a problem in a "one nation way" is worryingly mad. One year ago, the 'one nation' phrase was daring and evocative, but its usage now is delivered in a way which reflects the conversations that take place in the leader's office rather than the local pub.
The politics which Miliband has started dribbling out this weekend – from the bedroom tax to small business rates and housing – are potentially popular, genuinely progressive and, so far, economically sound. But without a functioning, unified party machine to deliver an uncomplicated message, he might as well not bother.
The weaponry is there, but the delivery system is broken.