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Is Ed Miliband being too short-termist and opportunistic in his attacks on the Tories?

David Cameron and Ed Miliband clashed in a strangely subdued pre-election round of prime minister’s questions yesterday, hours before the polls opened for the first major electoral test since the government’s formation and Labour elected its new leader.

Bizarrely, the opposition leader opted not to exploit the coalition’s dangerous divisions over the AV referendum (see Ian Birrell’s article on our election blog for more on this), perhaps because of the weighty section of Labour MPs behind him who are campaigning, unlike Miliband, for a “No” vote.

Instead, Miliband chose two effective—if opportunistic—lines of attack: policing and tuition fees. He began by asking Cameron how many experienced officers would lose their jobs in the wake of 20 per cent cuts to the force and, after Cameron responded with general claims about falling crime, provided the answer to his own question, claiming that 2100 officers with “over 30 years’ experience” would be made redundant under the government’s plans. Exploiting Lib Dem opposition to rising fees, Miliband ended with a line for the evening bulletins: referring indirectly to the reported AV row at Cabinet yesterday, he said, “I know how the energy secretary [Chris Huhne] must have felt,” adding that “a year ago we had two parties ‘working together in the national interest’; now we have two parties threatening to sue each other in their own interests.”

In contrast to recent weeks, Cameron managed to keep cool, and the leader’s clash resulted in a score draw. Ed Miliband is good at getting under the Tories’ skin, but his stance on tuition fees risks veering into the short-term opportunism that characterised Michael Howard’s time as Tory leader (and as it happens, Howard also criticised tuition fees). In response to Miliband’s attack, Cameron produced the best pro-fees case available: that “successful graduates” should pay for their higher education rather than “taxpayers, many of whom do not go to university.”

To be fair to Ed Miliband, contrary to the Prime Minister’s claims, he is not guilty of “hypocrisy” on fees, having always argued against them and in favour of a graduate tax. But he might want to reflect on Cameron’s point, which is at once unfashionable and progressive in its principle.

More treacherous still in the long term is Miliband’s position on the police, and crime in general. Last year, in his first speech as leader, Miliband delighted liberals by making it clear he would resist the temptation to attack the Government from the right. Now, however, with his successive shadow home secretaries Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper, that appears to be just what Miliband is doing.

Police cuts come as part of a package that includes elected police chiefs, as well as a review of sentencing and prisons. Given the uniquely unreconstructed—and unaccountable—nature of the force, Ed Miliband may just find himself on the wrong side of history if he goes on defending the status quo for the sake of an easy electoral hit.

Cameron had the loudest of very few laughs today, when he referred to a recent Ed Miliband interview with the Sun, in which the Labour leader said: “I am not going to defend what happened in the past just because I happen to have been in the last government.” Cameron has hit the nail on the head when it comes to Ed Miliband’s dilemma. To what extent he breaks with new Labour or sticks to a political approach which he helped shape, will determine his success or failure. Ed Miliband often says that authenticity is the most important attribute in politicians today. If that is true, the only way he can win is by discovering who he really is, sticking to his instincts, and not letting anyone sway them.

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