Kevin Meagher looks at the new leader’s in-tray

THIS week, of all weeks, Ed Miliband will not find himself short of advice. Whatever his critics, myself among them, have said about his campaign, he has executed his strategy expertly. Quite simply, he intuitively understood the centre of gravity in the modern Labour party far better than any of the other candidates.

His appeal to the Guardian-reading, soft left, public-sector urbanites who comprise so much of the party’s grassroots, was perfectly pitched. These are principled, decent people who can be swayed by pragmatic arguments, as they were (initially) by Tony Blair; but ultimately they retain their original, earnestly held views. They saw many of their cherished beliefs battered and bruised during Labour’s years in office and were grateful to have a candidate to vote for in this contest who actually chimed with how they see the world.

The trouble is that their views are not necessarily the views of the broader electorate. Or, indeed, our lost Labour voters. Both Gordon Brown’s former pollster, David Muir and the Open Left team at Demos have made this point in recent days.

So the balance between idealism and hard-nosed electoral reality needs to be better calibrated. And our new leader will not have long to do so. He has to adapt to a fast-changing political landscape with firmness and quickness or risk being on the back foot from the off. To his right-wing media critics he is already “Red Ed” – a rollback to Labour’s Jurassic period.  I am sure we can expect some subtle but firm rebranding in this afternoon’s speech.

Clearly, trade unionists carried him across the finishing line, but these early caricatures of him as Derek Simpson’s Mini-Me are sloppily drawn. In truth, Ed made very few explicit pledges throughout the campaign. Some of his more dewy-eyed supporters are set to be disappointed at how pragmatic he will turn out.

He knows that an early characterisation of his leadership as a lurch leftwards will need to be shaken off. It is a gift to his political opponents. Hence he got to work straight away talking about the “squeezed middle”.

But from 20 October, when the comprehensive spending review is published, he will face a relentless volley of cannon fire that will be impossible to avoid. This issue will unite the coalition like no other. The Tories look on with glee at the prospect of reducing the size and scope of the state. The Lib Dems are in uncomfortable territory, but through a skewed sense of public duty, convince themselves that they are merely ‘cleaning up Labour’s mess’.

Tory and Lib Dem ministers alike will seek to turn unpopular cuts into a populist bludgeon to bash Labour’s credibility, demanding answers about what Labour would do over each and every cut. There is probably nothing over the next four and half years as hard as what Ed Miliband has ahead of him in the next four and a half weeks.

Rhetoric will be no shield. Moral outrage about the effects of cuts may be sincere but does not answer the fundamental question, which will be presented as a zero-sum game: you are either a credible leader and therefore agree with what needs to be done; or you are opposed and therefore incredible.

Ed Miliband needs to decide, almost immediately, what his approach will be. This is made harder by yesterday’s intervention of the international monetary fund giving the coalition’s cuts programme a thumbs up. Alastair Darling warned conference yesterday that Labour should stick to reducing the deficit by half in four years. People like Ed Balls have persuasively argued against cutting too fast, citing the residual risk of the economy slipping back into recession. Strong arguments on either side. Everyone agrees about the need to regain Labour’s reputation for economic competence, but how? Ed may find out why Mr. Blair was so fond of third ways.

The autumn political season will be ugly and bloody. Ed Milband will emerge in just a few short weeks much stronger or much weaker. His critics on the benches opposite (and on the rows behind him) know that. For good or ill, his leadership may be permanently defined.

In setting his approach to the CSR he will need to ask what kind of Labour party he wants to build too. This matters because as opposition leader you have nothing to run except your own party. In government, the nitty gritty can be devolved to political secretaries, general secretaries, whips and regional offices. In opposition, the tone and direction must come straight from the leader’s office.

Will Ed Miliband’s Labour party be a vehicle narrowly focused on the pursuit of power? Or will it be a more broadly-based, inclusive movement; perhaps making good on the promise of one-member-one-vote back in 1993 by getting individual trade union members into the party?

His big challenge will be to engender not only a sense of strategic direction, but of momentum. As opposition leader, though, you are at the mercy of events. Labour’s most prolific election winners, Harold Wilson and Tony Blair, both did much shorter periods as leader of the opposition, taking over mid-parliament after, respectively, the deaths of Hugh Gaitskell and John Smith. In contrast, Ed Miliband has a four and a half year trudge ahead of him.

And the high ideals of politics need filthy lucre to propel them. Corporate money does not follow parties into opposition, while big donors got burnt under Blair. We are back to relying on the unions.

The reality of the coalition changing so much policy so fast is that Labour will have to respond in real time. The 2010 manifesto already looks superfluous. The debate has moved on. What will we do about the proposed alternative vote (AV) referendum next May? We are currently opposing the bill paving the way for the AV referendum because of its other measures to reduce the number of constituencies, yet we support the measure in principle. These and other knotty problems need unpicking.

And what do we do about the Lib Dems? Ed has to find a rapport with the Lib Dems that heads off any pre-election pact with the Tories. His line about never working with Nick Clegg was a smart move to ingratiate himself with the Labour tribe mid-campaign, but it is an untenable position now he is leader.

There was hardly a peep out of the Lib Dems during their conference. Many now see that their future and that of the Tory party’s is symbiotic. Labour will need an extraordinary offer to split them up. If they formalise their pact ahead of the general election we may find ourselves locked out of power for two terms.

Ed Miliband’s challenges are immense. As would have been his brother’s or anyone else taking over. As Labour’s twentieth leader, he will be all too aware that just four of his predecessors have actually gone on to win a general election: MacDonald, Attlee, Wilson and Blair. Yes, that’s right, to get that aggregate up from ‘dire’ to just ‘awful’ you need to include Ramsay MacDonald.

Ed Miliband deserves our support and encouragement. His in-tray is daunting, the road before him strewn with traps and peril, the resources at his disposal, few. But this is not 1983. The party is united. The coalition has enough difficulties of its own to digest. The prize of making Mr Cameron’s a one-term government is realisable. All of us across the Labour family wish him well as he embarks upon his task. But, like any leader, he walks that road alone. He should enjoy these rainy few days in Manchester. The weeks and months to come will be much, much harder.

Keving Meagher is a former adviser to Labour ministers

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2 Responses to “Kevin Meagher looks at the new leader’s in-tray”

  1. Mark says:

    This is spot on – Ed will have a real challenge over the deficit, and one that he fast needs to develop a coherent response. Aorting out the shadow Chancellor is an immediate requirement.

  2. Mark says:

    * This is spot on – Ed will have a real challenge over the deficit, and one that he fast needs to develop a coherent response to. Sorting out the shadow Chancellor is an immediate requirement.

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