by Dan Hodges
We have to understand. We need to grasp what has just happened to the Labour party.
Ed Miliband did not have a bad week. He had a grotesque, cataclysm of a week.
When the Leader of the Opposition finds himself having to rebut charges he’s “weird” you know something is amiss. But if you spend the whole of your own conference rebutting you know the wheels are detaching. And by Thursday morning there were more wheels bouncing around Albert Dock than a formula one pit lane.
Rebutting the idea the NEC was going to move to have Tony Blair indicted for war crimes. That the party intended to licence journalists and kick out onto the streets those it caught misbehaving. That Ed Miliband planned to march into the Big Brother house and evict the lot of them.
And they were just the noises off. The fact Labour’s leader has no idea who his Scottish counterpart is was a mere footnote. The rapid unravelling of the tuition fees pledge a long forgotten irritant.
Just to put things into context, here are the responses from three shadow cabinet members to Ed’s speech on Tuesday. “I don’t understand what he was doing”, said one. “I feel physically sick”, said another. “I’m in shock”, said a third.
Those are members of a Labour shadow cabinet. Not minions of the Murdoch Empire, or Cameron cronies. Nor are they cartoon Blairites. They are serious politicians who want to see their party back in government. And they were, literally, in despair.
I just cannot understand Ed Miliband. He did not suddenly roll into town on a turnip truck, but worked at the very heart of the New Labour project. He may not have been a fundamentalist, and he saw at close hand the excesses and psychodramas.
But he is also a serious politician. He knows full well how an attempt to label elements of the business community as “predators” will be branded. What it means for a leader of the Labour party to turn his back on “consensus” politics. How, after a year of trying to cleanse the “Red Ed” stain, a speech which involved sticking two fingers up at the British establishment would be received.
So why did he do it? “You have to understand”, says one insider, “Ed has a genuine sense of destiny. He genuinely thinks he is going to be Labour’s Margaret Thatcher”. Another supporter sees a more pragmatic basis for the strategy, “”If you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks”, he said, “a safety first approach just won’t cut it”. Miliband’s team knew full well the passage on “predatory” businesses was indeed what they describe as, “high risk”. But they are adamant that he was not attacking business, and by drawing a distinction between good and bad business practice, actually making a case made to them by many members of the business community; “Many business leaders have been saying to us they’re sick of the way good businesses are being given a bad name by a few bad apples” said one aide.
Ed Miliband was right. He is not Tony Blair. But he still has what it takes to be prime minister. On phone-hacking he showed an ability to pick up and run with an issue of national importance. His stance on public sector strikes, in particular his recent speech to the TUC where he voiced clear opposition to industrial action, demonstrated genuine courage and even won him grudging respect from union leaders themselves. His championing of the ‘squeezed middle’ represents sound positioning, and has allowed to him to outmanoeuvre David Cameron and George Osborne on issues like the 50p tax rate.
But having the tools, and having the skills to use them to construct a substantial political foundation are not the same thing. And Ed Miliband is seemingly unable to deploy them with the professionalism and consistency to really challenge the coalition and present himself as a credible alternative leader of the nation.
Opposition isn’t easy, but it is simple.
You begin by deciding where you want to position yourself politically. You then develop a policy framework to support that positioning. And finally you construct a philosophical and intellectual narrative to define your programme as you sell it to the electorate.
Ed Miliband and his advisers are attempting an identical process, but in reverse. Rather than think about where they need to be politically they are starting with abstract, ideological, even theological, debates about the nature of community, society and the nation state. From within this stream of consciousness an occasional policy idea will emerge, though again it is anchored in socio-economic theory, rather than political necessity. And out of this Miliband and his inner circle hope a successful strategy will emerge by some strange process of osmosis that can lead Labour party back to the promised land.
Some of his supporters dismiss this as the jaundiced view of bitter Blairite obstructionists. “The world has changed” they say, “You’re still fighting the last war”. Perhaps. But one thing hasn’t changed from the eighties and nineties. We’ve still got a Tory government.
Is it really Ed’s critics that are stuck in the past? The last election was won by David Cameron, Bullingdon boy, despite the excesses of the bankers and the wealthy elite. Voters shifted in their millions to the Tories even though big business interests were overtly lining up behind them, and openly attacking the Labour government. Cameron pledged to cut further and faster than either the Balls or Darling plans.
Yet the lesson Ed Miliband draws from all this is that the centre ground is shifting to the left. And that Labour must shift left too in order to keep in step. That’s not the new Politics. That’s politics circa 1981.
At least one thing can be said in Ed Miliband’s favour. This week he fulfilled his ambition to be his own man. “This is the real Ed Miliband”, said a shadow cabinet source. “There can be no more arguments. This is who he is, and this is where he wants to take the party”.
“This week liberated him”, said one supporter, “he’s started putting forward arguments he believes are true, and that he also thinks the public believe as well. When we get through the heat of the last seven days he’s confident people will begin to recognise this”.
Another insider points to the phone-hacking scandal as the moment Ed Miliband’s course was set:
“That morning we were preparing to go out and attack Brooks was terrifying. Much scarier than preparing for the “predator” speech. But that was the moment Ed decided things don’t just have to remain the way they are, and he was going to go out and say so”.
Only the most bitter of Ed Miliband’s critics could deny he has courage. And his instinctive desire to confront the established order deserves admiration from anyone who truly views themselves as a progressive.
But courage is not enough. Nor can sentiment, however noble, be the basis of a political strategy. Ed Miliband is brave. He is principled. But he’s also wrong.
And at the end of the day, that is all that matters.
Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.