Ed Miliband is safe as houses, for now

by Dan Hodges

True story. Last party conference before Iain Duncan-Smith is sent to sleep with the fishes. His senior aide is approached by a delegation of Tory grandees. “It’s over”, he’s told. “This is Iain’s last act as leader. You need to help us to help him. We are going to do this properly”.

The advisor is told to station thirty loyal supporters at strategic points around the conference hall. They are handed a copy of key passages from his speech. As soon as the passages are delivered they are to rise and start applauding. The conference will rise with them. The crown will be set down. But with dignity.

Except there’s a problem. Since the speech was distributed there have been amends. Sections have been adapted. Transposed. Duncan Smith begins his valedictory address. Within the first 15 seconds the first clap line appears. The acolytes rise. In moments the hall is on its feet.

The lost leader moves on to a new passage. This was supposed to be seven pages in. Now it is the second paragraph. Again, the cheerleaders rise. Again, so does the entire conference. The quiet man is turning up the volume.

He begins the third passage. It again includes one of the clap lines. The thirty are on their feet. Conference is on their feet. By now the Tory faithful are caught between a quandary and a frenzy. They are applauding every passage of note. How can they stop?

Iain Duncan-Smith received more than 20 standing ovations. Two weeks later he was history. The  moral? When the Tories move against a leader, they move. They do it properly, even to the point of ensuring that their victim is allowed an open casket.

Over the past week, there has been mounting speculation about the future of Ed Miliband. The back-benches are becoming restless. The front-benches are in despair. The voters have cast their verdict.

But then there is the reprieve. “Labour aren’t like the Tories. They don’t move against their leaders”.

To borrow a line from a great man who knows a thing or two about undermining Labour leaders: “bollocks”. The Labour party has launched more coup attempts than a South American banana republic. The problem is, we are crap at them.

When Michael Foot was leader, the internal drumbeat against him reached such a crescendo  the party was forced to call a press conference in the middle of the 1983 election campaign simply to confirm to voters that he was still leader. The plotting against Neil Kinnock became so public that David Hare wrote an entire play about it, “Absence of War”, which included a scene in which the Kinnock character physically assaults an aide who has been exposed for his disloyalty. Tony Blair freely admits in his autobiography that he and colleagues agitated against John Smith. Blair himself was the subject of at least two assassination attempts at the hands of Gordon Brown. Brown in turn survived the David Miliband plot, the James Purnell plot, the Blears/Flint plot, the Jowell/Darling plot and the Harriet Harman duck plot.

To date, Ed Miliband has been a poor leader. To the limited extent that the general public engages with him, they think he’s the guy who stabbed his brother in the back, had a Mori marriage and moonlights as an extra from the Wallace & Grommit cartoons. Labour’s poll ratings are bouncing around on  a par with the Conservatives, a party whose populist programme includes a 1930s austerity package, the effective abolition of the NHS and the early release of some of the nation’s most brutal sexual predators.

But be clear: Ed Miliband is safe as houses. He’s going nowhere.

There are three reasons for this, none of which are to do with the mistaken belief that Labour treats its leaders with kid gloves.

The first is a political point. To get rid of a leader you need a replacement. And Labour doesn’t have one. Speaking to a senior former Blairite last week, the message was clear: “we’re not going to do to Ed what the Brownites did to Tony. Whatever people feel about his direction, or lack of it, we’re not in that game”. A shadow cabinet member told me, “I’ve got issues with Ed. Serious issues. But I can’t honestly say he’s at a place where I’ve convinced myself the best interests of the Labour party are served by me or others  moving against him”.

Ed Balls, another potential successor, is continuing to build up his machine within the party. But for the moment he will be scrupulous in ensuring that he does not allow himself to become a focal point for discontent with the Miliband operation. Whether there is a vacancy is immaterial. There are currently no applicants.

The second point is organisational. Leadership elections cost a lot of money. And the Labour party doesn’t have any. The only people who could afford to bank-roll another ballot are the unions. And they just spent a large amount of their members’ cash telling those members that Ed Miliband was the man. Coming back within twelve months and arguing, “we were wrong last time, this time we’re right”, is a tough sell.

The third is personal. Ed Miliband is a bent flush, but he is not yet busted. The voice, the look, the biography, these are tactical issues, but not strategic. The serious problems, the continuing shambles of his office management, the lack of clear political direction, the myth of the “false choice” prospectus; these are still within his grasp, and as such, still within his gift to solve.

The  problem for Labour’s leader is that he has yet to show any sign of getting to grips with them. The advantage for Labour’s leader is he still has the space to do so without snipers appearing in the bushes. And, in the short term, even if they were to do so, knowing the Labour party, they’d miss.

We all know how the immediate future will play out. The adverse criticism of Ed Miliband will intensify. Party conference will be framed as “make or break”.  Ed will confront his critics. And face them down. For 24 hours he will be feted. His tormentors forced to live with our shame.

Then normal service will resume. Cameron will again demonstrate that the next election is a choice, rather than a referendum. He will ignore the leader of the opposition, damning him with non-existent condemnation.

But Ed Miliband will survive. Protected not by a bodyguard of loyalty, but one of uncertainty. He is not as much a prisoner of his party as Foot. Nor quite as distant from the public as Kinnock. He falls short of replicating Smith’s complacency, or Blair’s over-familiarity. It goes without saying that he is not another Gordon Brown.

Ed Miliband is secure. Not because he is surrounded by allies, but by natural enemies. And the Labour party has struck at the King, and missed, on too many occasions. People are sharpening their knives. But they will not be rash in using them.

Our leader has a breathing space. He needs to use it.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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18 Responses to “Ed Miliband is safe as houses, for now”

  1. Rob says:

    “Brown in turn survived the David Miliband plot, the James Purnell plot, the Blears/Flint plot, the Jowell/Darling plot and the Harriet Harman duck plot.”

    You forgot the Hoon/Hewitt plot. And the Straw one. And any number of Charles Clarke manoevres.

  2. Dave Branwood says:

    Now is the winter of our discontent and now is the time to act.

  3. CS Clark says:

    It’s now getting to the point where I know I can skip the first five or six paragraphs of any article by Dan Hodges and jump straight to where the anecdote/retelling of 80s movie/wikipedia trawl leaves off and the piece actually begins. Editor, edit thyself.

    In the substantive part of the article, one point he’s missed is this – the party will not manage to grow membership if current and potential members think people in the party are adopting an Irish referendum approach to leadership.

    Also – ‘Speaking to a senior former Blairite last week, the message was clear: “we’re not going to do to Ed what the Brownites did to Tony. Whatever people feel about his direction, or lack of it, we’re not in that game”.’ Ah ha ha. Nice. The anonymous source is promising to not brief behind the scenes. Sometimes I think Hodges is auditioning for a Clarkson gig, but this shows he’s ready to help script a new thick of it.

    (And while I understand your position on anonymous sources – it furthers your own poltical agend… sorry, I mean it’s the ethical thing to do – could you at least number them so we know if the shadow cabinet member who told you things is the same one as last time, or a different one. With other journalists it wouldn’t matter so much, but since you seem to realise you need to tell people explicitly when you’re not making things up… well, you see the problem).

  4. Merseymike says:

    But given that you announced to us all that David Miliband had won the week before the election , why listen to you?
    In any case whatever is decided upon won’t be to your liking – what you fail to understand is that those who voted Tory still support them because they are getting what they voted for

  5. SaneLynch says:

    IDS had at least a year as leader before the knives came out for him, Ed hasn’t been there a year yet. If you look at the polls for Cameron’s first year as leader they are worse than Ed’s. However, Ed doesn’t seem to be getting his message across to the voters at all, but it was always going to be difficult to do so with the program the Coalition are pushing through. The Shadow Cabinet are as responsible as Miliband for the failure to land any blows on their counterparts, particularly John Healey, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper.

    I don’t really see who the potential alternatives are, Balls? No way, he’s immensely unpopular within the party and would inevitably be perceived as Brown pt. 2.

    I think Miliband deserves another year at least, to try and get his vision across, whatever that may be – Blue Labour?

  6. JW says:

    You missed a fourth point, and by far the most important: he’s as hard as nails.

    He learnt his trade in the brutal civil war between Blair and Brown in the midst of the pressures of a government under siege. He didn’t so much stab his brother in the back as kick him in the kidneys till the man was passing blood. And under a barrage of blows from the media, the Tory coalition and a bitter faction of his own party, he has rolled with the punches and tightened his grip on a leadership that was his only by a whisker.

    I’d be asking what he’s going to do to the knife sharpeners when he gets his breath back.

  7. Not a Blairite says:

    Well that’s the 2015 general election lost then isn’t it. While Labour faff about the Tories are negatively transforming this country in ways that Thatcher could only have dreamed of. By 2020 – or more realistically – 2025 (if we keep Ed) there will be no point Labour getting back into power. The country as we currently know it – free NHS, etc, will have been fatally and permanently destroyed.

  8. John P Reid says:

    the david Miliband and James Purnell plots? I missed them, Yes Millibnad did have an articel calling for more new laobur and Purnell resigned and said the Gordon should go, But is that a plot?

  9. william says:

    More pathetic inward looking navel gazing.’A bent flush,but he is not yet busted’.A poor Hollywood B script,Mr.Hodges.The issue is not the man(provided in Southern voters eyes,he is not weirdo Gordon Brown,or anybody else with a Scottish accent),but rather sound policies.Sure,there were some astonishing misses at open goals this week,but the big match is years away.Give the man a break.

  10. Ray_North says:

    I think that this is a very well written piece Dan – but you make the point yourself that Labour do not, traditionally, sack their leaders, not for having an adenoidal voice and not after what was at worst, a middling performance in the last elections and with Labour ahead in the polls.
    So, presupposing that Labour won’t sack its Leader, the message for Ed Miliband must, surely, be a positive one, urging him to be himself and impose his personality (I don’t know him, you do, but I here that he is a very clever, amiable and honest bloke) and his beliefs.
    I fear that instead of doing this – Labour will end up giving credence to the message that the Tories will peddle (see Tim Montgomerie’s piece in the Daily Mail this week) – that is that Ed Miliband is a rubbish leader – after all, they’ve done it before.
    Can I invite you and your readers to consider this theme in the article I wrote for Allthatsleft – http://www.allthatsleft.co.uk/2011/06/saving-ed-miliband/

  11. Ralph Baldwin says:

    That and at the moment many of us are still shell-skocked at the appalling state of our Party. The Leader is not the issue and most of us know it well. With MPs being sent to prison, daily theft being reported on the Daily Politics, blatent Nepotism rampant so soon after the expense scandal, it is clear to the public the current nature of our Party and its primary concerns and goals.

    Yep, the Leader is a very minor issue.

  12. Rob Lawson says:

    We do have an alternative leader. His name is David Miliband and the sooner he is in place, the better!!!

  13. Robert says:

    I think Labour has to look at getting the swing voting Tories back, the people at the bottom of the pile, the poorest the sick the disabled will not bother voting because both parties are generally Conservatives, labour with a smaller c granted.

  14. Dan McCurry says:

    Well written piece. But I think Ed Balls will go for it. He’s hinted that he’d like to do another leadership contest, in that he jokes that he enjoyed the four months of debate and would have been happy if it had gone on for another four.

    As for the lack of money, the problem seems to be that we’re spending a fortune on a navel gazing exercise about party reform, when there’s nothing wrong with the party. The party is in rude health, as a band of committed activists, at least.

    Ed Balls knows the City well enough that he can raise plenty of money. The question is who else would run. Personally, I’d like to see Caroline Flint run. She appeals to the south. I don’t think she’d win, but I’d like to see what she’s made of.

  15. AmberStar says:

    @ Dan

    The serious problems, the continuing shambles of his office management, the lack of clear political direction, the myth of the “false choice” prospectus; these are still within his grasp, and as such, still within his gift to solve.
    I think these are areas that deserve expansion. I enjoy your amusing articles but I’d also like to see some substance every now & then.

    So do tell…. What, in your opinion, would turn our ugly duckling into a swan? 😉

  16. Safe as houses….on Bombay Street.

  17. Robert says:

    Bit in the Mirror to day about Ed and David and the upset and then you have Harmon coming out with having a women as second in command for ever, two sexes in labour man women one must lead one must be second, of course if a women leads the party do they still take second in command.

    I just think the party is completly lost in control freaks looking to take the high places, it’s going to take a long long time before labour gets back to the real duty serving the people who vote for you.

  18. TDAT says:

    EM may not have been leader for a year, but how many more open goals can he afford to miss?

    The Tories have no mandate, the country is in despair. Old ladies stop me on the streets to wail about the cuts. But we have no leader for this opposition.

    Ed Milliband must act, he must lead. Now.

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