by David Talbot
August, clearly, was not quite the sojourn the Labour leader no doubt dearly wished it to be. The hitherto unheard of George Mudie, apparently the MP for Leeds East, initiated the dreadful barrage that was to be directed at the Labour leader over a fearsome few weeks.
Pilloried from left to right, upon his return Miliband was attacked in a different form when a disgruntled bystander threw an egg as he sauntered round a south London market. Amongst the many reactions was the question of “why?” – it was in itself a surprise to many that a member of the public had formed a sufficient enough opinion of Miliband as to be angry.
For the Labour’s leader’s strategy has been personified by that of the forever being the tortoise, and certainly not the hare, on the path to 2015. It has been eloquently articulated as “zen socialism” and, astonishingly, really is the only “-ism” one can apply to Miliband nearly three years into his leadership.
“Zen socialism” first troubled the English language in the aftermath of Labour’s bloody leadership election. In those troubled days the strategy had an ounce of sense; Labour had just been crushed in the general election and had subjected itself to a ridiculously long internal election that had split the party in two.
A sustained period of quiet reflection seemed imminently sensible. The electorate were neither listening nor cared about what the Labour party was saying or doing. Polls reflected comfortable Labour leads that were more a referendum on the coalition than anything the Labour party was doing. A safety first approach seemed attractive and sensible; time to rebuild, heal and fight renewed.
At some point in every parliament, though, the cycle of politics ceases to be a referendum about the government and turns into a choice between parties. When that point comes, as it now surely has, Labour really ought to look like a plausible party of government offering a coherent, costed and attractive prospectus. The party is, to put it politely, some way off that. Members of the public are categorically not telling pollsters and canvassers that they wish Ed Miliband would just take that little bit longer to define himself and outline concrete policies.
“Zen socialism” increasingly sounds like a catch-all cover for a politics that the misty-eyed left so often yearn after, and that we can never have, or, frankly, a ruse concocted by the leadership and the sympathetic media to disguise that the party’s supremos really haven’t the faintest clue what to propose for 2015. Miliband is hostage to time, a victim of his own strategy. The public are an unforgiving lot and have already started painting in broad brushes the electoral canvas for 2015. If Miliband and his cohorts continue their considered silence then what could have been a masterpiece will instead hang neatly above a re-elected David Cameron’s door.
Vast swathes of the Labour party and, more importantly, the public simply aren’t willing to give the Labour leader and his senior advisors yet more time to pontificate. The constant promise of a better tomorrow has worn thin with a weary electorate, who have in many policy areas – because of the depth of silence from Labour – damned the party both in the past and for the future. It need not have been. If the party’s hierarchy had spent the last three years laying the foundation blocks of the vision to come then they simply would not have been facing the mountain of criticism they now rightly face. For a leader so often criticised for failing to define himself a vow of monastic silence is of questionable political course.
August has given way to a bitingly dreary September. In a few days the party faithful will assembly in Brighton for a four day bout in the annual amphitheatre of party conference. The Labour leader can have no more “zen” – and preferably little red-in-tooth-and-claw socialism – in his flagship speech. The countdown to 2015 began in 2010, it’s just that Miliband did not realise it. There’s no time like the present to start defining himself.
David Talbot is a political consultant