If Ed Miliband wants to make a come back, he needs to go away first

by Jonathan Todd

Somehow Iain Duncan Smith retains a frontline political role. Tony Blair doesn’t. But, even after the Iraq war, Blair looked set to defeat Duncan Smith so comprehensively that serious, sober people wondered whether we’d see another Tory government. Then Michael Howard steadied their ship and was returned not to government but with honours at the 2005 general election.

As a widely respected figure, who’d just fulfilled his brief by performing better than Duncan Smith was expected to, Howard was well-placed to stay on as leader during the extended leadership election, which, ultimately, resulted in the youthful but arguably more electable David Cameron, not the older but arguably less electable David Davis, emerging victorious.

Uncut will leave it to readers to decide whether the Labour leadership now contains candidates comparable to Cameron and Davis then. But the idea – as proposed by James Forsyth in the Spectator – that Ed Miliband might now be performing a Howard function for Labour, staying on for long enough that the most electable successor wins out, is a false analogy.

The more accurate analogy to Forsyth’s argument is if Duncan Smith had stayed on as Tory leader, leading them to a calamitous defeat, and remained as Tory leader throughout an extended leadership contest. The logic of this is implausible at each step.

Tories junk leaders doomed to defeat, including one as revered as Margaret Thatcher, which is a lesson, having failed to strike two under-performing leaders, Gordon Brown and Miliband, Labour might learn at the third opportunity. Neither party, though, could stomach a long leadership election under a leader who has just led their party to humbling defeat.

If, say, Alan Johnson had assumed the Labour leadership at a similar juncture in the last parliament as Howard took on the Tory leadership in the 2001 parliament, and Johnson had led Labour to a more respectable performance in the general election than, unfortunately, came to pass, then Johnson would have been able to stay on as Labour leader through an extended contest.

But, after defeat, Miliband was a much more diminished figure than the Johnson of this scenario. Miliband was, therefore, no more able to perform the Howard role than the derided Duncan Smith would have been if Howard hadn’t replaced him.

Miliband’s ambition to be, a la lDS, an influential ex-leader, as Blair once said of Brown’s hopes of succeeding him as prime minster, is not ignoble. It is, nonetheless, irritating other members of the PLP. Miliband, according to a Sam Coates article in the Times, “is causing consternation (among Labour MPs) by seeking political rehabilitation so soon.”

There are two conditions to an IDS-style rebirth for Miliband. First, he needs, as IDS and other leaders, such as William Hague, who have gone on to make frontline contributions post-leadership, to go away for long enough that he is forgotten. Second, if, like IDS, this rebirth is to entail a return to ministerial office, it depends upon a Labour leader emerging with more prime ministerial qualities than Miliband himself has.

Whether Labour has such a leader within its ranks remains to be seen. But there are signs that Miliband is violating the first of these conditions. “Ed wants to do a [William] Hague, but Hague went away for quite a while before popping up again,” says a Labour MP quoted in the Coates article. “He doesn’t seem to understand why he lost, just that the voters got it wrong.”

But why did Labour lose?

“Miliband’s personal unpopularity, the recovering economy, the Sturgeon surge and the Clegg collapse,” Tim Montgomerie has speculated in the Times. Noticeably, however, Montgomerie does not blame Miliband’s ideas. Instead he notes how similar themes feature in Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“Clinton certainly doesn’t do anything by guesswork. At (the) launch of her presidential campaign she identified the gap between rich and poor as her central concern. She wouldn’t have done that without consulting her huge opinion-polling machine. Dumping Miliband’s equality agenda might therefore be premature for Labour.”

There is greater popular unease about the gap between rich and poor than when Clinton’s husband was in the White House providing a blueprint for Tony Blair’s Labour. This creates the political justification for sharpened rhetoric on equality, while the policy rationale is contained in counteracting the tendencies to inequality involved with both globalisation and technological change, the great drivers of economic transformation in our times.

While there remains more of a political and policy need to explain how the economic pie will be grown, key themes of the Clinton (Bill) and Blair years, than Miliband often seemed to acknowledge, there is also an enhanced political and policy focus on how the pie will be distributed, which portends much, including an IDS-like rehabilitation for Miliband.

Miliband will damage this harvest, however, if he seeks, as he now seems to be doing, to have it too quickly. He needs to let his public and political profile have a somewhat fallow period if they are to fully realise the potential that remains within them. It is mistaken, though, to think that this potential ever extended to a Howard-esque contribution. Any more than it did to Number 10 Downing Street.

Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut

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6 Responses to “If Ed Miliband wants to make a come back, he needs to go away first”

  1. Richard MacKinnon says:

    There is a school of thought of which I am a pupil that reckons that when you take into account the mess Ed Miliband inherited he did surprisingly well to hold on to 225 seats.
    Mr Todd asks why Labour lost. The main reason was past economic incompetence. Nobody trusted Labour and yet Ed Balls although tainted by association to The Man who saved the world, was Labour’s candidate for chancellor. He couldn’t even hold onto his own seat. Miliband held his Mr. Todd.
    There were many other factors not least Iraq. Labour has to face up to this monumental foreign affairs disaster, arguably a war crime, and press for the prosecution of Tony Blair. I realise that there are powerful figures within the party that would never allow this to happen, not least because they are also culpable but not to do so and to continue denial of illegal war will result in a slow death for Labour as a political force. That is the reality of the situation Labour faces.
    For what its worth, I don’t think that it is unreasonable for a political party to face the ultimate sanction for electing as their leaders and bestowing upon the nation the likes of Gordon Brown with his immoral lust for debt and for the terrible legacy of Tony Blair.

  2. Tafia says:

    The man was, is and will remain a joke in the eyes of the public.

    Scarpers on not one but two holidays after being more comprehensively routed than von Paulus at Stalingrad – while at the same time the people he let down the most can’t afford even one holiday.

    Left his party in the lurch by walking away before a new leader was in place thus leaving Harperson to be routinely put to the sword every week live on TV to an audience of millions and as a result the party is now a rudderless floundering ghost ship with no coherent policies or positions on anything under the sun.

    And latest belief is that it’s going to be mighty close between Burnham and Corbyn for leader, with Burnham probably going to need second preference votes. That it has reduced to a competition between an amoral two-faced chancer and an unelectabler man of dogma must fill the tories with absolute joy.

  3. Can you not at least hide you’re intense loathing of the man?

    To answer you’re question, Labour lost because of the economy, on Scotland (by failing to deal with the referendum and it’s fallout and by not countering Cameron’s allegation that there would be a Labour SNP coalition – not likely and not as distasteful as a Tory-DUP coalition), and because they did not put enough of a policy gap between themselves and the Tories. Oh and their leader did not have the necessary leadership skill set.

    As one of the new SNP PM’s put it, why would voters buy Labour wearing the Tories clothes when the Tories are there?


  4. Brian Capaloff says:

    As soon as someone commenting here uses the Daily Mail-type favourite wording, thus delighting in their misogyny, of Harperson, I think we can skip over the rest of their comments, as somewhat lacking in any sense of credibility!

  5. Tafia says:

    Harperson is a hypocritical gobshite pure and simple.

    She’s part of the reason Labour deservedly lost in 2010 and part of the reason Labour deservedly lost in 2015. If she’s still knocking about in 2020 she’ll be part of the reason they lose then as well.

    And the use of Harperson is mainstream now. It’s how they rip the piss out of her in all the red tops as well – including the Mirror.

  6. Brian Capaloff says:

    The use of ‘Harperson’ grew out of the right wing’s hatred of Harriet Harman’s strong backing of a feminist perspective. Whoever uses the pejorative Harperson is playing to the rules set by the right wing and attacking, using their language, the idea that there is a role for people in promoting feminism. That, as you say, the Mirror uses this word is hardly defence of its anti-feminist premise.

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