East meets Westminster: Does Ed Miliband’s re-branding of Labour set him up for victory?

One nation under Labour and Ed Miliband?

Has a strange ring to it, yet that is the pitch – and it will have the Conservatives worried.

Last time Labour pitched up firmly in the centre they scored a landslide. But is this really a return to blue Labour?

The Eds – Balls and Miliband – began their party’s conference with a firm kick up the bracket to the unions.

Then it was another familiar mantra of “education, education, education …” – deja vu?

But with the Labour leader using the phrase “one nation” – a favourite Tory buzz term made famous by Benjamin Disraeli – it is clear Mr Miliband is planning a shift or at least wants certain people to think he is.

His speech was delivered with blistering bravura. It has finally moved Mr Miliband from super geek to real contender.

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Forget the polls. Labour insiders are pleased with their party’s lead over the Tories but the British electorate has a habit of plumping for the devil they know best in tight election races. And although many of the top brass were not around in 1992 that stinging defeat still looms large.

Mr Miliband’s 65-minute speech made Nick Clegg’s a week earlier look like an awful, cringe-worthy bestman’s effort. He recognized that this was the time to step up as a leader and pile the pressure on the coalition. And he did just that.

His justification for the “one nation” phrase was that the Prime Minister had forfeited his own “we are all in this together” mantra because of his performance at the helm.

But the real reason he used it was even simpler and will send a collective chill down Tory spines: “I am coming after your voters Mr Cameron.”

But there were no gasps from the unions when Mr Miliband began to lean more to the centre. Earlier in the week they had their guns trained on the two Eds over pay restraint with Unite general secretary Len McCluskey saying: “‘A public spending squeeze while the City continues to let rip is simply not acceptable.”

But the spat appears to have been put aside with Mr McCluskey singing Mr Miliband’s praises after his speech hailing it a “tour de force” and predicting he is a “prime minister in waiting”. What backroom deal has been done to garner such praise?

It appears that before the leader’s speech the Eds and the unions were already holding crisis talks. A motion to attack the the pair over public pay was watered down at the last minute to save the leader’s blushes.

So Mr Miliband might well be sounding like a Third Way politician this week but this is no Clause IV moment. Mr Miliband is not about to embrace the centre – and even the right – in the manner Mr Blair did.

No – it will be less an embrace and more a high five.

But Mr Miliband is more likely to get the keys to No. 10 if he gets comfortable in the centre somewhere. Britain no longer votes for parties with exclusively left or right policies – modern politics succeeds only in the centre.

Many would say Third Way politics failed with Tony Blair and Bill Clinton yet Mr Cameron adopted it wholeheartedly. He reached out beyond the obvious Tory voter – remember him hugging hoodies and even huskies?

‘Red’ Ed Miliband was never actually that red. We have not seen many Labour policies yet but they are not going to include a bid for common ownership of land or the nationalisation of major industry.

But swing voters who probably went for Mr Blair and then backed Mr Cameron were not convinced by Mr Miliband – and they will remain sceptical. But he is at least making the first steps towards that magical position where people from across the class divide are willing to side with your party.

Witham Tory MP Priti Patel is confident Mr Miliband is still not the political beast her boss is.

Speaking to East meets Westminster, she said: “The speech lacked substance and sent a clear message that their answer to our economic woes is to tax, tax and tax some more – more failed economics from Labour.

“His pitch to the centre ground was baseless as his party are too hung up on class war.

“The Prime Minister can do better than Ed Miliband as he has a record of achievement in government to show and the ability to articulate how, through Conservative values, he is changing the country so that it is more on the side of the hard working, law-abiding majority – those who want to get on in life.”

She makes a fair point about the lack of policies but Mr Cameron’s advisers are not quite as confident. Now they and the Prime Minister have a decision to make on Mr Miliband’s grab for the centre. And it could not have come at a worse time for a party being dragged right by powerful backbenchers.

So does Mr Cameron make a grab of his own for the voters who took him to Downing Street? Or should he just make light of the suggestion Labour is the party of the centre ground?

Whatever the decision he needs to be on top form when the Tories gather in Birmingham next week for their conference.

Labour has enjoyed a strong week and Mr Miliband will head back down the M1 pleased with himself.

He chose his words carefully but now he will have to choose his actions even more so. Mr Miliband is appearing more prime ministerial but the public want policies.

Now the really hard work starts.

n Richard Porritt is on Twitter @Porritt.

richard.porritt@ archant.co.uk