Labour: What Do You Want from Ed?
by John Humphrys in Commentary and Editor's picks
Mon October 1, 1:24 p.m. BST
John Humphrys asks: What should Ed Miliband do to put doubts about his leadership to rest?
The Labour Party has been holding its annual conference in a better mood than it has enjoyed for years. The party is ahead in the polls; the next election is getting closer; and there is none of the bitter internal fighting that in the past has torn the party apart after big electoral defeats. Only one thing casts a bit of a shadow over proceedings: the lingering worry that the party’s leader, Ed Miliband, may be failing to shape up to the job and to persuade the public that he ought to be the country’s next prime minister. So what should Ed Miliband do to put doubts about his leadership to rest?
Veterans of Labour Party conferences must regard the state of the party as little short of miraculous. They remember how so often in the past losing power was followed by vicious civil war within the party, keeping it out of office for years. When Attlee lost in 1951, the battle between the left-wing Bevanites and the right-wing Gaitskellites led to two further general election defeats before the party scraped back with a tiny majority in 1964. Jim Callaghan’s defeat by Margaret Thatcher in 1979 led to an even worse feud. The Bennite left took the party by storm and a large chunk of the right actually left the party to form the SDP. This time it took three further defeats before the party could come back to power, under Tony Blair in 1997.
Many people must have expected that exactly the same pattern would be followed after Gordon Brown lost power in 2010. Indeed they may have feared it would be even worse. After all, Labour’s defeat in that election was the worst it had ever suffered in office, with the party failing to get even 30% of the vote. Surely this would be bound to lead to fierce internal party blood-letting?
But it hasn’t happened. In fact the party could be said to be more united than it has been in decades. There are, of course, still disagreements among the comrades (even if most wouldn’t dream of using such a word to describe themselves). In particular, the unions are very fed up indeed with some of the leadership’s economic policies, not least its support for tight control of public sector pay. But that’s not the same as civil war. In fact the leadership may not be at all unhappy that some union leaders are making strident complaints about party policy: it helps to show the public that the party is not in the pocket of the unions.
What characterises the new unity of the party is the silence of the left. In the past, the left has been extremely vocal because it was angry at what it regarded as the betrayal of the party’s values by the actions of the Labour government that had just been defeated at the polls. Not only was the left determined to pin the blame on the right, but it was even more determined that there should be no similar betrayal next time round. So battle commenced.
This time, though, the left seems to have put the politics of betrayal behind it and to have realised that divided parties lose elections. Cynics would say that the reason for their relative silence has little to do with political maturity and more to do with having nothing to say. Whereas the Bevanites and the Bennites had radical alternative programmes to offer, today’s left-wing does not, they claim.
Labour’s opponents would add that it’s not only Labour’s left-wing that has nothing to say: nor does the Labour leadership. Its public pronouncements rarely rise above the vacuous, they argue, and though this may be good for preventing internal party rows, it exposes the party as having little to offer the voters.
Less partisan commentators would say that Labour’s alleged lack of specifics is not so much a sign of its weakness but more of its canniness. Oppositions, they point out, are wise not to commit themselves to too much when there are still over two years to go before the next election. Specifics are hostages to fortune.
In any case, the Labour leadership claims it has plenty to say. On the biggest issue of the day – the economy and what to do about the country’s huge deficit – Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, can plausibly argue that he got it right and the Tory chancellor, George Osborne, got it wrong. Mr Balls claimed from the beginning that the government’s plans to cut the deficit faster than the outgoing Labour government had planned would lead to intensified recession, while Mr Osborne said it would produce growth. Well, we are still in recession and while few impartial commentators would claim that Labour had a policy which could have avoided continuing recession, they would certainly endorse Labour’s charge that the government was being too optimistic.
But if avoiding contentious policy positions is one reason the party is enjoying its unfamiliar unity, there is probably also another. That is its choice of leader after Gordon Brown resigned.
Ed Miliband has been able to preside over a non-fractious party at least in part because he is a leader who is acceptable to all wings of the party. Most commentators would say that had his brother, David, become leader (as many people thought he would), then this probably would not have been the case. David Miliband was much more closely associated with Tony Blair and the current non-Blairite majority in the party would have been much more wary of what David Miliband as leader would have wanted to do with the party. There would almost certainly have been bigger rows by now.
But there has been a price to pay. Whereas David Miliband is regarded as a charismatic figure, a man of high energy with the touch of danger and risk about him that makes many leaders interesting, his brother, Ed, is widely seen as dull, colourless and poor at communicating to the public. Worse, say his critics, is that he comes over as a geek, a policy wonk, someone better suited to the back rooms of politics where policies are worked out than to the front of stage where they are sold to the public. Even Jack Straw, a party loyalist, has said that Ed Miliband still needs to find the language to talk to ordinary voters.
The character of a leader, though, is rarely decisive in an election. Back in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was far from being the charismatic figure she became and was far less popular than the avuncular Jim Callaghan. But she still beat him. In 1992, John Major, widely derided as the grey man of politics, beat one of the best orators of the postwar world, Neil Kinnock. Ed Miliband’s supporters may take comfort from the thought that the public may have had enough of smooth political salesmen, like Tony Blair and David Cameron, and be ready to put their trust in a man who seems to be in politics because he is interested in ideas and policies.
So far, though, the evidence isn’t there that this is true. Although the Tories trail Labour in the polls, David Cameron has a strong and consistent lead over the Labour leader. And in a mischievous poll conducted by the Tories on the eve of the Labour Conference, it emerged that Labour would be doing much better under David Miliband than under his brother.
The Labour Party almost never gets rid of its leader against his will, so Ed Miliband is almost certain to lead the party into the next election. But if he is to lift the shadow he personally seems to impose on Labour’s chances, what, if anything, should he do?
What are your views?
- Are you impressed with Labour’s seeming unity?
- If you were one of those who didn’t vote Labour last time, are you more prepared to do so now and, if so, why?
- What single thing would you want to see Labour do to ensure your vote?
- Do you think Ed Miliband is a good Labour leader or not? How valid and how important do you think the criticisms are of his leadership?
- Do you share the view that he is dull and uninteresting?
- Do you think it is a good thing or not that he seems to be so interested in policy and political ideas?
- Would he make a good prime minister or not? And what would you advise him to do to improve his standing with the public?