Last week saw the beginning of a journey: from Red Ed to one nation prime minister

by Michael Dugher

Political strategy, like Robert Burns’ best laid schemes of mice and men, can “oft go awry”. The thing that really tests prime ministers, governments and oppositions too is what Harold Macmillan once famously called “events”. A week ago, Ed Miliband convened a special meeting of the Parliamentary Labour party (PLP) to discuss that day’s vote on support for military action in Libya. Despite the Conservative and right-wing media’s ongoing efforts to caricature him as “Red Ed”, a prisoner of the left-wing trade unions, he spoke very firmly in favour of military action arguing that, despite the huge reservations and concerns that many in the PLP held, Labour and Britain must support the will of the international community as spelled out in the UN security council resolution. What is more, he carried the meeting. And he managed to unite MPs as diverse in their ideological perspective as Michael Meacher and John Spellar – a remarkable (if not unprecedented) achievement.

At the PLP meeting, Labour’s former shadow foreign secretary, Gerald Kaufman, warned Labour MPs of the need to get the party’s response to the Libya crisis right. No two set of international circumstances are the same. But as a member of the shadow cabinet at the time, Kaufman said that Libya was as big a political test for Labour as the Falklands had been in the early 1980s.  He reminded colleagues – many barely out of nappies at the time – that Labour’s response to the Falklands was “all over the shop”.  He said Labour put itself on the wrong side of the argument with the public, looked unpatriotic, and even allowed the Conservative government to get away with some disastrous defence decisions in the run up to the conflict. Kaufman argued that Libya was not the Falklands, but that there were lessons for Labour. He was right.

But if Ed Miliband’s speech to the PLP was important, his response to David Cameron, later that day on the floor of the House of Commons, was even more significant. Most Labour MPs – in fact most MPs – would agree that Ed Miliband’s address was the best Parliamentary speech he has made since becoming leader. Watching the speech from the backbenches, one fellow MP turned to me and whispered: “look at Cameron’s face – he know’s Ed is making a better speech than he made”. It is true that while David Cameron gave another assured Parliamentary performance, his speech to the House of Commons sounded more like a minister reading out an important report written by civil servants, rather than a major political contribution to a historic event. Cameron did, though, praise Miliband for his “extremely powerful speech”.

Ed Miliband’s response to Cameron in the Commons last Monday was not just “well constructed, thoughtful, authoritative and affecting in its invocation of his family history”, as Andrew Rawnsley highlighted in yesterday’s Observer.  Ed Miliband’s remarks were significant because he was talking to the public, rather than just the Labour party. Central to his speech was a judgment call about what Britain’s role in the world should be and what should be the values that guide our duties to others. Drawing on the “responsibility to protect”, adopted by the UN general assembly in 2005, Ed Miliband told the House of Commons:

“Where there is just cause, where feasible action can be taken, and where there is international consent, are we really saying that we should be a country that stands by and does nothing? In my view, that would be a dereliction of our duty, our history, and our values”.

Ed Miliband wrote the speech with his friend and foreign policy expert (Lord) Stewart Wood.  We also learnt this weekend that Ed drew on advice from his former foreign secretary brother, David. This is a good sign. But aides say that Ed Miliband was very, very clear about what he felt and what he wanted to say from the outset. I am told the draft was pretty much completed by the Sunday afternoon before his Parliamentary performance. This is, I am told, not always the case.

Last Thursday, a day after the budget at which Ed Miliband attacked the Conservatives for yet another downgrading of growth saying that “it’s hurting, but it isn’t working”, Labour organised a “peoples’ policy forum” for 2,000 people in Nottingham as part of our wider policy reviews. Ed Miliband made a speech, the crux of which he repeated that evening at a fundraising dinner for the east midlands Labour party in Leicester. In it, he attacked the Conservatives for “the politics of division” and said that the Tory-Lib Dem government was driving a wedge between North and South, the public sector and the private sector and those with jobs and those struggling to find employment. He warned that the government risked repeating the mistakes of the 1980s and said that only Labour could unify the country. Listening to both speeches, I was struck by the “one nation” theme.

Ed Miliband’s participation in the rally at last Saturday’s “march for the alternative” was always going to be a public relations challenge. It was inevitable that a tiny minority would hijack the march and seek to cause trouble. It was equally inevitable that the media would focus on the couple of hundred rioters, at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of peaceful protestors. As the Economist noted at the weekend, the timing of the live pictures of the violent anarchists coinciding with the Labour leader’s speech was “unfortunate”.  Many commentators, especially from the right, were quick to announce that pictures were a disaster for Labour and election was already won for the Tories. Iain Martin, the respected but right wing commentator for the Daily Mail, said on Twitter that the “Don’t underestimate Ed Miliband association” was now closed.

But the clips of destruction were in stark contrast to what Ed Miliband actually said at the rally. Again, his language was of one nation, not class war. He told the marchers that “we stand not for the minority, but for the mainstream majority of Britain”.  He described the “sea of faces” at Hyde Park as “people from all walks of life, from all classes, from all backgrounds, from all generations”.

As well as “events”, one of the many other things that Harold Macmillan was famous for was symbolising a new generation of conservatism after the second world war. Macmillan was a privileged Etonian, but he had served in the trenches in the first world war and had suffered side-by-side with malnourished working class lads from across the Britain. He came back from the western front, took up politics and wrote “The Middle Way” in the Thirties, an appeal for the Tories to be a party that stood for the whole country, not just for their traditional sectional interests. After 1945, it was Clement Attlee who united the whole country in his desire to “win the peace” and deliver the sort of radical reforms people were crying out for after years of depression and war. In successive elections, Tony Blair also demonstrated the power to make Labour a force that could bring together the country, though too often his approach was about defining himself and New Labour against the Labour party, a mistake that even strong supporters, such as Jim Murphy, have recently conceded.

In a week of speeches by Ed Miliband, we are seeing the development of Labour’s one nation appeal once again. Again, Rawnsley quotes a senior Tory after the budget who said: “I think our side and you guys in the media are collectively underestimating Miliband”.  It may not have looked that way when the BBC and Sky cut to the anarchists trashing Piccadilly during his speech, but we may look back on last week as the moment when Red Ed became future prime minister Ed.

Michael Dugher is the Labour MP for Barnsley East and a shadow defence minister.


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7 Responses to “Last week saw the beginning of a journey: from Red Ed to one nation prime minister”

  1. Do you believe that stuff? Excellent. If so “10 more years, 10 more years….”

  2. Henrik says:

    That’s a very loyal piece and no doubt rewards will follow. One can’t disagree – Milliband E. produced a barnstormer of a speech, fully worthy of the Leader of HM Opposition. Great stuff.

    Now, explain to me and the great British public precisely why anyone should:

    a. Listen to this guy who in all probability won’t be leader come the next General Election.
    b. Follow a party which, so far, offers nothing in the way of alternatives to the Coalition’s policies other than “what we did last time, only more so. Or less so, we’re not sure”.

    The problem is that political conversation in the public realm – as opposed to the Westminster bubble – has now become so infantilised and glitzy that one man of principle making a great speech is pretty meaningless. Public sector workers and liberal types from North London will vote for you guys, anyway, most others probably won’t unless you give them a good reason to do so.

    Labour has a very steep hill to climb – fiscal competence, respect for civil liberties, support for the armed forces – all p*ssed up the wall in the last 13 years. One slightly-odd sounding bloke who will inevitably be characterised as the creature of the Unions (even more than he is now, if he shows any signs of developing some popular traction), is not going to be enough. You need to develop a vision for the sort of England (we can safely ignore Scotland and Wales, I suspect, the centrifugal forces *you* unleashed will see them separate soon enough) we can expect if we vote for you. At the moment, folk have a very clear idea of what a Labour-ruled country would be like and they don’t seem to care for it.

  3. G. Tingey says:

    And if anyone is daft enough to believe all that codswallop, then I’ve got this bridge to sell you……

  4. william says:

    Oh come on.EM speaks to 200,000 public sector workers, whose union bosses foisted him on the party ,against the vote of the PLP and the membership,whilst the lasting memory for the great British public will be the anarchism of groups that will be forever seen as connected with Labour,some of whose constituency MPs supported a silly EDM,althogh their constituents were receiving substantial charitable donations from the Weston family.This is student politics, not the behaviour of a future PM:is the future Chancellor Ken Livingstone in full deficit denial mode on QT?If the party is serious about being reelected, I would give James Parnell a call.

  5. theProle says:

    You are Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf (“there are no US tanks in Baghdad….”), and I claim my £50…

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Muhammad_Saeed_al-Sahhaf

  6. Chris Burke says:

    For those of us who really do follow politics and talk to the people we want to support, we know Michael is on the money. Ed has not changed, he never was a Trot but he refused to defend Tony Blair and Iraq when he felt the argument could not be put. Hence he won against an equally bright Liberal, David, who could not easily let go. Its interesting because I have also met the late and quite wonderful Milliband Senior and he also had that quality that marked out the real thing although he was a bit to my left I found. All that said, we in politics make some silly assumptions about the public. They are not interested especially in Iraq, I doubt if they are too bothered if we bomb Mr Mad in Libya. They are bothered by people who take their jobs though and people with no mandate and people who promise to support our students and then take a red box instead. Its not wise to mess with the Brits as Mr Cameron will discover on the 5th of May.
    Ed will be the next Prime Minister because the public trusted the Lib Dems and David Cameron, both of whom cynically promised a new politics and they goinf to get some good old British politics from the people.

  7. WHS says:

    Ed Miliband Prime Minister? Aw come on, pull the other one, there’s bells on it.

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