In his Mail on Sunday column today, James Forsyth gives a fascinating insight into what both main parties are thinking as we move from welfare wars into local election campaign mode. His piece is, as usual, full of gems – but one in particular caught my eye.

Several of those closest to [Ed Miliband] tried to persuade him to use the term ‘benefit cheat’ in a speech soon after he became leader. They believed that Miliband, the son of an academic, needed to speak in the way that voters do. But Miliband refused. He’s determined not to take the tactical approach to the issue beloved by the triangulators of New Labour. Instead, he wants to position himself as a ‘one nation’ politician capable of uniting the whole country.

I think a Miliband victory would be a disaster for Britain, but he is very difficult to dislike (a strong attribute in politics). One of his more attractive traits is a sense of decency. The same was true of the late Michael Foot, of course, it didn’t make him electable. But Miliband looks like he will be more successful. He has refused to go after the Tories for closing prisons*, because he agrees with the policy. Politically daft, if you ask me, as the Tories are very vulnerable on this. But I grudgingly admire him for sticking to his (misguided) principles.

On welfare, Miliband seems to have decided to take another political hit. George Osborne has long goaded him about his position on welfare, and last year he even crossed the floor to thank the Labour leader for voting against reform. Something you can never imagine Iain Duncan Smith doing – he wants bipartisan support for this agenda. The American experience shows that welfare reform works best with all-party support. But I wonder if, longer term, Miliband’s more restrained language will bring dividends.

If the Tories learnt anything from their failure to win the last four elections, it should be that their biggest problem is people mistrusting their motives. Being uncharitable about the poor and unemployed, or portraying welfare reform as a way of getting one over on the Labour Party, risks inflicting longlasting damage to the Tory reputation. Recontaminating the brand. Onlookers will be amazed at how quickly the Tories seem to forget these basic lessons.

In the last week, we have been reminded that the Conservatives have not lost the capacity to self-mutilate. In the 1990s, the problem was a Spock-like obsession with economics. Now, it’s an obsession with political tactics. Iain Duncan Smith has spent years building a social justice agenda for the Conservatives which is not just plausible, but widely accepted. Not once has he ever blamed the unemployed for their plight, or spoken about ‘scroungers’. His welfare reform agenda is an extraordiary achievement, the greatest triumph of Tory modernisation. It’s a success worth protecting.

Labour’s great advantage is that people tend to regard the party as well-meaning, even if naïve and ineffectual. Being seen as well-intentioned and led by a leader who is (as Michael Gove puts it) “in politics for the right reasons” is a pretty strong asset. Especially if voters think the next election is an ugly baby contest where they have to choose the least bad option.

Ed Miliband has no choice but to embrace welfare reform. But if he manages to keep the reputation of being decent and well-meaning in the process, it will be a strong asset for his party in 2015.

* Prisons are closing, but I’m told there will be more adult places in 2015 than 2010. More on this later.

Tags: George Osborne, Iain Duncan Smith, Welfare reform