Miliband: seeing into the future or shouting at the sea?

by Rob Marchant

Last Thursday, Ed Miliband was speaking at the IPPR on the economy, doughtily willing that Labour’s alternative can soon be heard again in light of Britain’s increasingly dreadful prospects. In spite of the response of many commentators that here was a battle he couldn’t win, his words indicated that he genuinely believes things are going his way on the economy and that Labour merely needs “one more heave”, as Dan Hodges puts it. He and Ed Balls need only to keep saying the same thing, and the political tectonic plates will have shifted their way by the general election.

Never mind that Labour’s economic polling is awful and has shown little sign of shifting over the last year, in spite of the crisis. Never mind that the Tories have two fairly foolproof deflection strategies for this mess: blame Labour, blame Europe. Team Miliband is convinced that the tide is turning and it is just a matter of time.

Why? It is instructive to examine the psychology behind this. There seem to be two factors at play. One is about the vision thing. There are a few people in any generation – a very few people – who have the extraordinary gift of seeing the future. Not literally, like a soothsayer, but the visionaries: the Steve Jobses or the Thomas Edisons. Or  the political figures who define a generation: the Mandelas, the Luther Kings, the FDRs, the Kennedys. People who see the trend lines in today’s thinking and can extrapolate them out, accurately, into the future, along with a road map. They anticipate, and they get it right. These people are extraordinary (not to mention usually pretty successful in their chosen field).

Those around Ed Miliband – understandably, or they would not be there – need to believe that he is one of these people. He has read the runes during his “fresh thinking” tour of Britain and in the organic tea leaves brewed up by the occupy movement and has seen the future. It is a world after a paradigm shift: a public-demanded move towards “good” capitalism and away from “bad” capitalism (that same bad capitalism, for the record, which has awkwardly persisted for most of history). Since 1918 there have been six recessions , but arguably only one economic paradigm shift to the left, which followed the second world war. But a war has not happened; an economic downturn has. It is, of course, possible that Ed is one of these visionaries. But it also seems unlikely, just as it seems unlikely that we are undergoing a marked sea change in public opinion (which, as Hodges has pointed out, appears by all accounts to be moving to the right).

There is a second factor, which has kicked in since July this year: risk-taking. On phone hacking, Miliband made a decision to confront Rupert Murdoch which was genuinely brave. Perhaps even recklessly so, as argued here, but he pulled it off, and all credit to him. Risk-taking is an important ability in a politican, and at that moment the often over-cautious Miliband Mk I changed completely.

But in the same way that team Miliband seems to have overestimated the impact of the economic crisis on people’s thinking, the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr observes that it may also have read too much into phone-hacking and that really not that much has changed:

“He made a difficult and brave judgement call – took a risk – and got it right. It was a turning point in his leadership. But Miliband and his team read more into it than that. If Labour could reverse the orthodoxy that said you have to suck up to the Murdoch empire, what other orthodoxies of recent political memory might be ripe for reversal? It was an episode that emboldened Miliband and encouraged him to develop more broadly the language of “vested interests”, “ripping up the rule book” and “predatory capitalism” as expressed in his party conference speech and in last week’s article in the Observer praising the St Paul’s protest”.

The FT’s report that James Murdoch will be staying on at BSkyB only serves to underline the fact that the Murdoch story is not over yet; Miliband may yet live to regret his “brave” stance. But that is another story.

At any rate, on both counts, Behr is right: the triumph of phone-hacking was overplayed. And there is also a difference between risk-friendly and reckless. In the film Fearless, Jeff Bridges plays Max Klein, a man who, having miraculously survived a plane crash, believes himself to be invincible and from then on looks constantly to take risks, believing no harm can come to him. In a similar vein, post phone-hacking, Miliband has had his experience of walking on water, and now does a very good impression of thinking that such things are the norm. By all accounts, there seems to be developing a dangerous groupthink in the Miliband circle.

Ed himself, perhaps wisely learning the lesson of his finger-burning in the media after the March 26th demo, has kept a cool head regarding his position on the national strike day, so far at least. Good. It might be more prudent for lessons to be learned in advance through anticipation rather than after the event, but hey.

Nevertheless, since the summer Miliband has seemed compelled periodically to demonstrate that there are plenty more dotty ideas up his sleeve – and if you’ve read his piece on the St Pauls protests or witnessed his conference speech, you’ll understand – which he will happily take forward unprompted. Now, with this determination to follow his instincts, it seems clear that he is not going to be easily swayed or influenced by people outside the inner circle. But you can picture senior Tory strategists, reflecting on this, smiling to themselves as they recall Humbert Wolfe’s epigram on journalists:

You cannot hope to bribe or twist,

thank God! the British journalist.

But, seeing what the man will do

unbribed, there’s no occasion to.

On the one hand, they won’t be able to manipulate him, or catch him out in a moment of low cunning. On the other hand, they will reason, there’s probably no need.

It takes a lot of strength to convince those around you that you have the necessary vision, and that the risks you are taking will pay off. People who know Miliband well say he has a great deal of self-belief. And that’s a very good thing: it is undoubtedly a necessary condition for political success.

But it is surely not a sufficient one.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left.

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17 Responses to “Miliband: seeing into the future or shouting at the sea?”

  1. The Future says:

    Ok so let’s play a game. Just before the 1997 general elections what lead did Labour have when asked who do you trust more to run the economy?

    Major / Clarke

    Blair / Brown

    30%, 40%? Maybe even 50%

    The answer was THEY DIDN’T. Yup that’s right when going into the 1997 election the Tories were trusted more on the economy. And what happened then. and here we have the main problem with this site. Always desperate to find a reason to do Labour down. Always desperate to look for a reason why things are worse than they are.

    Yes, we have work to do on the economy. But if you are going to run off to unweighted sub samples as a desperate attempt to put a negative spin on things at least have the intelligence to know what your talking about. But then again I sometimes wonder if people on here just want to write for a handful of their friends and some Tories.

    Others elsewhere in the party will have the conversations that matter.

  2. Ralph Baldwin says:

    Very interesting article Rob,

    He canb no more see the future than I can fly to the moon by flapping my ears (no i can’t even flap them).

    He merely jumped onto the bandwagon already begun by Watson and we have all been miffed with Murdoch for years, it was hardly a great evolutionary leap…

  3. Rob Marchant says:

    @TheFuture: Yes, that’s right. Blair and Brown didn’t have a poll lead on the economy after 18 years in the wilderness. Not surprising, really, as no-one knew whether to trust them or not. But it’s a rather different thing after you’ve been in government for 13 years, isn’t it? The public is not saying, “we’re not sure about you, because we don’t have any recent evidence”. They’re saying, “we know what you’re like, we’ve seen you in action, and we’re not interested”. You see the difference?

    Not sure what you mean about unweighted subsamples, as I didn’t mention any figures, but if you want to have a debate over stats, I’m up for it. The figures are there in all the recent YouGov polling.

    As for the rest of your comment, you’ll have to do a bit better than “why are you all criticising Labour, it’s so unfair”. If you prefer everyone just to say how brilliantly Labour are doing on everything, you’ve probably come to the wrong site. But some of us believe you help your party by being a critical friend, rather than a cheerleader.

    In the internet age, there will be debate, and you have to win it by having a strong argument. That is the battle of ideas. Trying to tell people to stop having opinions won’t work, I’m afraid.

  4. figurewizard says:

    It was Blair wot won it. Then he made two dreadful mistakes. The first was Iraq and the second was not getting shot of Gordon Brown. The Iraqi people paid the price for the first and this country is paying for the second.

  5. aragon says:

    You doubt me Rob ?

    No I am not Ed, but in words of the song ‘You ain’t seen nothing yet!’

    With regard to Mr Murdoch, the ownership of the voting shares by friends and family mean he could not lose the vote.

    Labour needs to lead not follow and more from neoliberalism to a more distinctive policy.

    Ed is wrong about the strikes, look at the comments on the out of touch article.

    Offering people a choice between Lavender Lilac and Plum, just a bit more Red or Blue, will result in complaints that all the options are Purple.

    Labour needs to offer Scarlet, or just plain Red.

    Labour needs to lead, the staus quo, or Tories Lite will not do.

    And yes, Leadership requires confidence and a direction of travel, not hesitation and doubt.

    I for one have a map, and ‘here be dragons’ is not a deterrent to progress.

  6. Richard says:

    “It might be more prudent for lessons to be learned in advance through anticipation rather than after the event, but hey.”

    Except that’s not how lessons are learned. Ask any kid. Any Marchant claims to be an incisive psycholgist?

    More like an unwelcome parasite on the Labour Party hoping for a safe seat. Vomit.

  7. swatantra says:

    True. Ed has to look on the bright side of life and be very careful not to talk the economy down. Must also avoid looking like King Canute.

  8. @The Future: trust me, the Tories are very happy for Labour to drift complacently along believing that it’s OK for them not to address their very real and serious credibility gap. You just carry on with your neo-Keynesian catechisms and pseudo-working-class solidarity. The left always seems to enjoy life so much more without the encumbrance of power anyway – you know, that bit where you’re actually supposed to do things to help people, rather than just make a big display about how much you care? – and heaven knows the rest of the country prefers it that way too, so it suits everyone.

  9. Mike Homfray says:

    If the policies we are pursuing are essentially the right ones, then we have no choice but to continue to make the same points

    What we must NOT do is shift towards the Tory stance. Those who agree with the Tories approach are not about to switch to us under any circumstance and triangulation is not, at all, the way forward

    At PMQT yesterday Ed showed some passion and vision, just as he did in the ideas in the conference speech, noting the unsatisfactory and immoral nature of much capitalism, and the understanding of the role of the St Paul’s protest. Encouraging because it shows that free of the New Labour infestation, when he says what he thinks, its far from the failed and tired Blairite formula.

    Let’s stay well away from the negativity in this article and start supporting our party and its leader, and if people like the author can’t do that, as I couldn’t after Iraq – then he can leave the party, as I did.

  10. Rob Marchant says:

    @Ralph: Thanks (remarkable concise comment there!)

    @figurewizard: In order: Yes, largely. No. And maybe.

    @aragon: glad to see someone has a map.

    @Richard: But Richard, we are adults, not children. ‘Nuff said about your psychology, I think.

    @swatantra: indeed. It’s not an easy position to be positive yet critical on the economy. But it’s also important not to create avoidable problems.

    @Mark Stockwell: Yes, it’s funny how The Future is actually taking the precise position that the Tories want us to take, because that way they will win.

    @Mike Homfray: Now, let me see, Mike, is that nine times, or ten, that you have invited me to leave the party? Afraid leaving a party in a big huff is not really my style.

  11. Rob Marchant says:

    One aside: re the line “the Tories have two fairly foolproof deflection strategies for this mess: blame Labour, blame Europe.” Today Mike Smithson at Political Betting has the results of a poll on who the public blame for low growth:

    Top two factors: Labour and the Euro-zone. So we can conclude from that that the Tory strategy in this direction is largely working.

  12. Joe Roberts says:

    I think it is a bit rich for Rob Marchant to talk about the ‘battle of ideas’ in his comment above. I don’t think I have ever read a single original idea in anything that he, Peter Watt, Dan Hodges, Atul Hatwal or Kevin Meagher have written on this site. There’s incessant personality-based bitching about Ed Miliband, but never any suggestion of what policies they think we should be espousing.

    It’s difficult to tell what Rob thinks we should be saying on the economy, but reading between the lines, he seems to think that we should endorse Osborne’s economic policies – right at the moment when they are being shown to have abjectly failed. Ed Balls may not have the polls on his side at the moment, but he has the facts behind him. Everything that he warned would happen as a result of the Coalition’s austerity approach, is happening. Why would we want to hitch our wagon to a horse that’s about to gallop over the edge of a cliff?

    I should point out that I didn’t vote for Ed (he was my 4th preference, marginally above Diane Abbott). My politics are a blend of New Labour and the Classic Labour Right. I backed the Iraq War, student fees, foundation hospitals, tough anti-terrorist legislation, you name it. But I am heartily sick of the little clique on this site who cannot bring themselves to accept the result of the leadership election. Rob – if you can’t get support from someone like me, you won’t get it from anyone. You have got no constituency whatever in the party. Just look at this site – the only people who visit it are a few Tory trolls.

    So just put a sock in it, mate – time to stop commentating and start campaigning.

  13. aragon says:

    Your article is about lack of orthodoxy and yet you now choose and area where the two Ed’s are ultra orthodox, the deficit.

    See the end of Rob Lyons article.

    I on the other hand have been rejecting orthodoxy on Chris Dillows Blog.

    The problem with Ed Milliband is not that he is too unorthodox but too orthodox.

    Are people going to accept the explanation, that Labour is to blame, as the austerity continues beyond the next election.

    Unless someone presents an alternative, where is the choice.

  14. Amber Star says:

    @ Rob Marchant


    YouGov have Labour well ahead of the Tories as being able to promote growth & deal with unemployment.

    Bloody annoying, isn’t it? As soon as you find a poll that confirms your point, up pops a different one which contradicts it. 😎

  15. Mike Homfray says:

    Then accept that there are some policies you don’t like and keep quiet about them. As you well know, a party which appears disunited will be suspected by the public and I haven’t read much from you which has demonstrated any wish for unity. I think people who stay in parties which they no longer believe in are hypocrites

    And its very clear that Tory voters are going to stick with the Tories no matter what we say – because they agree with what they are doing. There’s little we can do about that, but we can at least look towards addressing the many people who stopped voting for us , many to non-voting. I really don’t think they want Tory-lite Blairism.

  16. Clr Ralph Baldwin says:


    Hey I’m afraid when describing shallow politicians you’ll only ever get concise from me. 🙂 otherwise I would be writing fiction fantasy.

  17. Rob Marchant says:

    @Joe Roberts: since you disagree so strongly with almost everything written on this site, I don’t really understand why you are commenting here.

    Trying to muzzle those who disagree with you is not really the way to win that “battle of ideas. The rise of the internet means that we are long past the point where parties can merely insist that everyone who disagrees shuts up – to be fair, all parties understand this (hence the healthy debate on LabourList and ConservativeHome, which is encouraged by the party organisation). You, on the other hand, appear not to.

    Let the debates happen. They are good, not bad. Come out with an opinion, rather than merely slagging off mine, which requires precious little intellect.

    And that goes for you, too, @MikeHomfray.

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