According to political journalists Ed Miliband is in a crisis. In the political equivalent of a cop movie cliche he has until the next Labour conference to fix things – or else. Labour has no direction, its poll ratings are poor and all because Miliband’s leadership credentials have got lost in the post. Labour elected the wrong Miliband and brother David is hovering in the wings impatiently waiting to take centre stage.
There’s another school of thought that points to the fact that there’s new book out on Ed and journalists are just looking for a story. That Ed beat David for the leadership fascinates political editors looking for a narrative that will beguile punters who have no interest in politics but love soap opera. There are also numerous Blairite Ultras in the party and in the press – as well as Conservatives of course – who want to cause trouble for Ed no matter how well he might be doing.
I’ve written about New Labour over the years, teach Nottingham students about its rise and (maybe?) fall and will be producing a second edition of this book in the fullness of time. So, let me try and establish the extent to which I think Labour under Ed really is in trouble.
1. Ed Miliband inherited a divided party in deep electoral trouble. Labour won just 30% of the vote in 2010 – and this was considered a good result, given the depths to which it sank under Gordon Brown. Labour also lost most amongst those voters – the C1s and C2s – who effectively decide which party wins office. New Labour had always been characterised, as Steve Richards has pointed out, by a deep fissure between neo-liberal zealots and skeptics who saw the market as a useful device but nothing more. Electoral success and economic growth kept the consequences of this contradiction in check but latterly under Blair it became almost unmanageable – and the world financial crisis made it worse.
2. Whatever his critics say, Ed Miliband has a strategy to address the party’s deep divides. He has identified Labour with the plight of the ‘squeezed middle’, by which he means the C1 and C2 voters who now face reduced public provision, declining standards of living and increased job insecurity. Miliband argues that during the present tricky period such people will not be helped by more liberalization but instead through better forms of government action. He is however hardly ‘Red Ed’. His speech describing people guilty of anti-social behaviour with others in receipt of excessive boardroom pay as ‘those ripping off our society’ cleverly hoiks together some of New and Old Labour’s favourite villains. This is not a fully worked out strategy – look at the muddle that is Blue Labour – but one year after an election defeat and maybe four years ahead of another that is both understandable and wise. But Miliband has set out Labour’s general direction.
3. Ed Miliband is not a great communicator so it’s not surprising that so few appreciate this strategy. Presentationally he stands somewhere between Blair slick and Brown slack – and much closer to the latter than the former. He is an underwhelming Parliamentary performer. This matters as doing well in the Commons ensures the troops on the backbenches are happy (and so don’t moan to journalists) and keeps at bay the Parliamentary sketch writers (top of whose job description is: ‘must be bitchy’). Neil Kinnock’s periodic failings in the Commons fostered discontent even though he mapped out Labour’s only viable strategy. The same might be said of Ed.
4. If Ed Miliband is sacked it won’t be because he can’t sell a speech – but because his party is doing badly in the opinion polls. Yet under his leadership Labour has regained and sustained a lead over the Conservatives. It is not huge and of late the lead hasn’t been very large. It might be argued that given government cuts and flip-flops, Labour’s lead should be huge and the party should have done better in the May elections. On the other hand it could be said that, given where Labour stood in May 2010 and the baggage it carried into opposition, the lead is remarkable. Where were the Conservatives in the first year after 1997? That’s a rhetorical question by the way.
5. The alternative to Ed Miliband is not a good as some think it is. Blairite Ultras go moist when they think of Tony Blair and to them David Miliband is Blair’s Mini-Me. This is unfair as the senior Miliband is his own man. But is he the best man to lead Labour? David certainly has more experience in government than his brother. But that also means he is more tainted – over Iraq for example – than is Ed. Moreover, if Ed’s problem is partly presentational, does anyone remember David and the banana? And, like his brother, David has never been associated with inspiring flights of oratory. David also seems to lack something his brother does not: bottle. As Polly Toynbee pointed out, if David had stood against Gordon Brown – and like St Peter he had three chances – Labour might have won enough seats to now be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. But he did not. In contrast, despite the family connection, Ed stood against his brother for the leadership, thereby showing he has something of the Blair about him. In contrast, David seems to have more of the Brown.
All leaders of the opposition suffer media speculation that they are in ‘crisis’ and about to be dumped. Ask every leader of the Conservative party between 1997 and 2010, David Cameron included. In recent times Tony Blair has been the exception to this rule – but only because between 1994 and 1997 he faced a governing party in the midst of a nervous breakdown and so always enjoyed large leads in the polls. Ed Miliband is not in such a fortunate position. He has to take a divided and discredited party into new territory, one presently occupied by that unique beast, a coalition government. He may look a bit geeky, speak in bullet points and have the charisma of a speak-your-weight-machine but it is unlikely that anyone else – given where Labour was in May 2010 – would have done much better.