Can Labour’s Cooler King make it over the wire?

by Dan Hodges

Every Christmas evening my family and I would settle down for the same ritual. Excitement, mixed with anticipation, blended with hope.

Could this, we wondered, be the year Steve  McQueen finally makes it over the wire?

In the days before satellite television lured us out of our cosy viewing habits with “Ice Road Truckers” and “Extreme Animal Attacks 2”, the film the Great Escape was a festive staple. Cruel Gestapo hoods. A brutal execution of heroic allied officers. The perfect accompaniment to the season of peace and goodwill.

Though it was on every year, familiarity did not breed contempt. Instead it produced intrigue. Would James Garner check the fuel gauge before shepherding Donald Pleasence on his doomed flight to safety? Might Gordon Jackson hold his tongue when the suspicious German ticket collector wishes him “good luck”?

But most tantalising of all, what fate would befall Captain Virgil Hilts, ‘The Cooler King’, McQueen’s perpetually incarcerated US fighter pilot?  Every year he would gun his stolen BMW motorbike towards the snow capped mountains of neutral Switzerland. And every year his heroic bid for freedom would fall agonisingly short.

For the first year of his leadership Ed Miliband has been the Labour party’s Cooler King. Trapped by an inconclusive mandate, imprisoned by his own insecurity, held hostage by a party unable to come to terms with electoral defeat and the reality and demands of opposition.

No longer. Labour’s leader has awoken to find the cell door ajar, the guard towers deserted and the searchlights extinguished. Suddenly he sees the prospect of making his own great escape.

There’s been a lot of rubbish written about Ed Miliband and the political impact of the phone-hacking scandal. If he does use it to put distance between himself and his political pursuers it will not, as some supporters have claimed, be evidence of his courage. As Miliband himself has acknowledged, he has been as unwilling as any other politician to challenge the power and influence of the press. It was only when others had taken a stand, and the public mood required outrage, rather than acquiescence, that he chose to speak out.

Nor can his assault on News International be seen, again as some have claimed, as the extension of Ed Miliband’s broader leadership philosophy. His speech to the 2010 party conference focused pointedly on irresponsible trade unionists, but contained no references to irresponsible journalists or media barons. And other shadow cabinet members, such as Ivan Lewis, have been more consistent in their calls to address the broader ownership issues thrown up by phone-hacking.

But in politics courage and consistency can often prove to be paper virtues. Neil Kinnock was brave, Ian Duncan-Smith ideologically true. It wasn’t enough.

Political success requires more that a stout heart and a big brain. It also needs a keen eye with which to spot opportunities, and the quick reflexes necessary to exploit them. Virgil Hilts had both. So, on the evidence of the past few weeks, does the leader of the Labour party.

Ed Miliband sensed the moment the phone-hacking agenda had turned decisively. He had the foresight to stick with the issue when many, including me, thought he was overplaying his hand. And he had the wisdom to know when to take the win, skilfully moving in behind the government when Cameron conceded to his calls for a public inquiry and a referral of the BSkyB bid.

“He showed a surprisingly sure touch”, said one shadow cabinet critic, “I wasn’t clear where he was going, but fair play to him. He judged it just right”.

Some were not totally convinced, pointing to Cameron’s strong performance in the final Commons statement before recess. Ed Miliband’s response, in contrast, whilst superficially eye-catching, lacked depth. A Westlife, if not a Westland moment.

But those muttering the prime minister had been let off the hook missed the bigger picture. Ed Miliband and his advisors never bought the hype Cameron was there for the taking. Instead, their tactic was to raise doubts about his competence, rather than his integrity, and in so doing begin to strip away the Teflon that had to that point so successfully insulated his premiership.

“We’re not going to find a smoking gun”, said one Miliband adviser before the statement, “and we’re not really looking for one. What we are doing is raising questions and planting doubts. Cameron was getting ready to go on holiday and have a nice relaxing break. Now when he’s lying on his sun lounger he’s going to have a big black cloud sitting right above him. And the British public are going to be thinking to themselves, ‘what’s that doing there’”.

The tactic has proved successful. Cameron is damaged, and though the political immediacy of phone-hacking may wane, the scars of the past month will never fully heal.

But Ed Miliband is not looking for trophies. Instead he sees the opportunity to completely re-define and  re-launch his leadership. And he intends to take it by using phone-hacking to make a final decisive  break with Labour’s past.

Two of Miliband’s most significant interventions over the past month were when he called for the inquiry to be broadened from hacking to the wider issue of the relationship between politicians and media, and when he followed that up with a call for both Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to give evidence. He isn’t stupid. He knows full well what a detailed interrogation of New Labour’s engagement with the press will uncover. And how unpalatable that examination will be to both public and party.

Miliband’s calculation is that where he has been unable to move Labour beyond the psychodramas of the past, Lord Levenson will do it for him. It represents his escape route.  We see an oak panelled inquiry room; Labour’s Cooler King sees an unattended motorbike leaning invitingly in the alleyway.

Over the next few weeks we will see further evidence of Ed Milband’s new strategy. The assault on News International will be extended to encompass an attack on other ‘unaccountable elites’ and concentrations of unreconstructed power.

It’s a strategy that will be fraught with risks. A key element of the plan is to convince the unions to relinquish or dilute their powerful block vote, and by so doing demonstrate Ed Miliband will prosecute his agenda without fear or favour. The unions, for their part, currently show little inclination to stand shoulder to shoulder with Rupert Murdoch in providing Labour’s leader with his triangulation.

Those party activists currently excited by the prospect of ‘Ed Miliband being Ed’ should also be careful what they wish for. Progressive Ed is set to be sidelined for the People’s Ed, a tribune for the ordinary man and woman in the street. He will speak to their fears on cuts, jobs and ideological experiments to the NHS. But he will also articulate their worries over immigration, perceived social security largesse and crime.

Ed Miliband sees his opportunity. He has been trapped. Now is the time to make his break for freedom.

The snow capped mountains of Switzerland beckon. Could this be the moment Ed Miliband finally makes it over the wire?

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.


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7 Responses to “Can Labour’s Cooler King make it over the wire?”

  1. Plato says:

    Nope – Ed is crap. We all know it and Tories want him to remain as Labour leader.

    If ever there was a kiss of death – its your opponents willing you on.

  2. Excellent piece, Dan. Brace yourself for the usual round of condemnation for daring to combine sound analysis with positive overtones about Ed Miliband.

  3. Luke says:

    Good analysis, poor analogy

  4. AnneJGP says:

    unpalatable

    It is, rather, isn’t it?

  5. Dan Hodges says:

    Luke,

    Succinct post, poor assessment.

  6. Laura says:

    “We’re not going to find a smoking gun”, said one Miliband adviser before the statement, “and we’re not really looking for one. What we are doing is raising questions and planting doubts”

    This kind of cynical lack of concern for truth and morality in the interests of political advantage is what makes me hate and despise politicians.

  7. “raising questions and planting doubts”

    Yeah, the public love all that subtle stuff.

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