Ed must be a leader, not a prisoner, says Dan Hodges

I was wrong. The heart ruled the head. It’s Ed, not David, whom the party sees waving from the steps of Downing Street.

There is a ritual that is enacted at moments like these. Critics become tribunes. Opponents cheerleaders. Cries of warning morphing seamlessly into honeyed words of praise.

That is as it should be. Politics is not a spectator sport. Ignore the gnashing of tabloid teeth. The party has a new leader, and he has been elected fair and square. A presumption of loyalty and support are, or should be, part of his inheritance.

But so should be honesty. Cant is no foundation for unity. Nor is suspension of disbelief. Those of us who stood against Ed Miliband’s election have an obligation to state why.

First, the positive. Only the most cynical could find nothing in his victory to lift them. After decades of safety first politics, in which every principle appeared subsumed to the pursuit of power, the sight of the party choosing a leader on the basis of shared values, rather than cold electability, was heartening.

Nor have we elected a political dilettante. Ed Miliband ran a spectacularly effective and dynamic campaign. He energised a demoralised membership, schmoozed hard-bitten Parliamentary colleagues, and soothed the trade unions. He’s got game.

He’s also got a mandate. Like it or not, the movement has spoken. He was the change candidate. And boy, are things about to change.

So we have an uplifting victory, and a tactically astute leader with a strong mandate. It is right that we should raise a toast to our good fortune. But, once our glasses are drained, we must also face some hard truths.

If the choice of the party was clear, so was the choice of the electorate. Throughout the campaign, almost without exception, every opinion poll, vox pop and focus group cited David not Ed as the candidate favoured by the wider electorate, (Andy Burnham’s belated endorsement on Newsnight being the notable exception). These obviously represent snapshots, not concrete perceptions. Ed represented an unknown quantity, and greater familiarity may very well translate into respect. The office of leader of the opposition will add gravitas and statesmanship. But our decision to overlook the candidate favoured by the wider public is, in itself, a political statement. We have not cut ourselves off from the voters. But we have blown them a raspberry. And we are going to have to explain ourselves.

We are also going to have to explain ‘Red Ed’. Those Ed Miliband supporters who decry as a caricature the painting of their man as a left-wing firebrand are right. Ed is about as left wing as Tony Blair’s cat. And to my knowledge Tony Blair doesn’t own a cat.

But it’s equally disingenuous to claim that his definition on the left is the sole handiwork of a malign press and bitter New Labourites. He was not, we were told, the man who would simply build a new consensus between unions and leadership. He was the man who, “understands the vital role of trade unionism and stands for traditional Labour values”. Reasons for voting for him, his supporters said, included, “a rejection of New Labour, its triangulation, social authoritarianism, embrace of flexible labour markets, support for tuition fees and the war in Iraq”. I recognise that positioning and language. I use it myself. It’s the language of the left.

Not that moving left is of itself a problem. Quite the opposite. But if we’re going to do it, it will require a more tightly constructed rationale than “It wasn’t me guv, it was Rupert Murdoch”.

As will the dismantling of New Labour. It’s clear that the New Labour brand would have been consigned to history whoever won the contest. Those who envisaged David Miliband standing victorious on stage, proclaiming “New Labour! We’re back, suckers, we’re back!”, are as guilty of parody as those championing ‘Red Ed’. The question was only the manner of New Labour’s passing.

We were told Ed wanted to “move on” from the New Labour years. He chose not to. Instead, he crossed the road to pick a fight with its protagonists.

His argument is that he had no choice. He was, he said, facing, “attacks on me by the New Labour establishment”. In truth, the last time the New Labour establishment had any divisions, he was part of it. There was no coordinated attack. There was a flailing against the dying of the light from one or two aging politicians who finally realised their days in the sun had passed. And David Miliband’s campaign was furious at their interventions.

Ed said in one of his speeches that we should always respect the achievements of New Labour. But, rather than pay his respects, he opted to dance on its grave. Again, it was tactically astute. But it has presented him with a significant strategic problem.

To many of us, New Labour came to represent a scar across the face of the party. But to many others, including many Labour supporters, it represented a willingness to change, adapt and reengage with their concerns. And to ignore that fact would not represent the blowing of a raspberry but the detonation of a political suicide bomb.

Whether Ed should move away from New Labour is not at issue. How he does it is the question that will define his leadership. And clubbing New Labour to death in front of a shocked electorate is not in the interests of anyone.

Those who say we should all unite behind our new leader are right. The path back to power has no space for passengers or malcontents. But we must all understand what loyalty will mean for all of us. That goes for Ed’s supporters, as well as his erstwhile opponents.

He will have to reach beyond the party to build his support within the country. He will need to demonstrate that he is the leader, not prisoner, of his movement. Above all, he will have to demonstrate that he can move beyond New Labour without abandoning those tenets of its philosophy which brought us political success.

Another prediction. Today you read these words from me. Tomorrow, and over the coming months, you will hear them from Ed Miliband. To some they will have an unsettling echo of voices past. So be it. We have made our choice. Now all of us must live with it.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut


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3 Responses to “Ed must be a leader, not a prisoner, says Dan Hodges”

  1. Marc Jones says:

    New Labour started out brave, willing to speak up and make changes that appealed to decency and fairness. Then it stopped and became “they are all the same” proclaimed to know best, lost not only the spirit of it’s genesis but also lost Labour members and voters who felt betrayed from the second administration and beyond. Ed Miliband is going again. Remembering the reason for New Labour’s birth and realising it ended up as dogmatic as the old guard it replaced. I for one wanted an organic, changing party following it’s core values not merely attempting to stick to a new set of rules that may well have ran their course (don’t move a millimetre is where David lost it even if it wasn’t David that said it).

    As for “We have not cut ourselves off from the voters. But we have blown them a raspberry. And we are going to have to explain ourselves.” totalled missed the point – we now have a leader that might just listen and actually hear the answer rather than speed off wondering what planet the teal people live on. In short, just what the party and country needs.

  2. Marc Jones says:

    For teal read real. This isn’t about colour 😉

  3. To win, we must first look at the real world, and adapt our policies and tactics accordingly. If we wish to change the world, it is vital hat we see it as it is.
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