Ed’s not that daft – but we didn’t know that

by Dan Hodges

False alarm. Stand down.

Ed Miliband is not going to start attacking the government for being too harsh on rioting arsonists. There will be no call for a blanket amnesty for illegal migrants. Or for benefit fraudsters.

The Woodward memo, a sort of stamped and self-addressed Zinoviev letter, certainly caused a bit of a flap. “Labour’s new line of attack on David Cameron revealed”, exclaimed the Observer. “The opposition believes the prime minister has abandoned the centre ground in recent months to adopt a more orthodox conservative stance on issues such as law and order, immigration and welfare”. “Labour’s new strategy will highlight the Conservatives’ most popular policies”, reported Conservative Home, gleefully adding, “We’re not making this up”.

Well, they were to an extent. “It’s not a strategy document”, said one Labour insider, “it’s an assessment of where Cameron and the Tories are. It provides analysis but it doesn’t advocate a line of attack”.

That statement is certainly borne out by the sections printed in the Observer. Woodward’s document is heavy on psychoanalysis, but light on prescription:

“Analysis of Tory party policy, carried out over the summer, convincingly demonstrates the Conservatives are shifting to a distinctly rightwing strategy, in both their chosen focus on issues and their solutions… Cameron clearly recognises some of the danger he faces in his repositioning. He is still seeking to separate himself out from a toxic Tory brand and has assumed a presidential role and style”.

This assessment tallies with a belief amongst Ed Miliband’s team that events and internal pressures are gradually forcing Cameron off the hallowed political centre ground. “We’re not planning to go marching away to the left. But there are going to be an increasing number of areas where the coalition’s going to pursue a more extreme right-wing agenda, and we need to recognise there’ll be times we’ll want to exploit that, and times when we won’t”, said one source.

So that’s all right then. Moving along. Nothing to see.

Well, yes and no. Ed Miliband has not put his signature to a Shaun Woodward penned suicide note. But there are still some shadow cabinet members who have been alarmed enough by the memo to contemplate confiscating his belt and his shoelaces.

“The problem with Woodward’s document isn’t the strategy it lays out”, said one shadow cabinet insider, “It’s what it says about their perspective. Shaun’s taken issues like immigration, crime and welfare reform and put them into a big box marked ‘right wing – do not touch’”.

Woodward‘s role in producing the analysis has of itself raised eyebrows, along with the Observer’s description of him as “head of Labour’s anti-Tory attack unit”. “I had no idea he’d been given that job”, said a shadow cabinet source, “is it official? What status does this document have? Is he writing this stuff because he believes it or because he thinks it’s what Ed wants to hear? There’s a shadow cabinet reshuffle on the horizon”.

One of the strange elements of the Woodward memo is that in defining crime, immigration and welfare as “right wing” policy issues, he seems to be cutting directly across three areas in which Ed Miliband has been making tentative efforts to redefine himself. In May he made a major speech specifically attacking those who “cheat” the benefit system. He’s also been preparing a significant intervention in the immigration debate, and yesterday launched a strong attack on the government’s proposed cuts in police numbers and budgets. Given that context, it’s hardly helpful to have Woodward negatively framing a tough stance on immigration, crime and welfare as  a retreat to hard core Tory ideology.

It’s also notable that Woodward’s attempt to highlight the flaws in the Conservative game-plan has instead exposed the disconnect between Ed Miliband’s own tactics, which are often relatively sound, and his strategy, which is frankly non-existent. Or at least, if he does have a strategic vision, he seems unable to communicate it with clarity to the outside world, or even his own shadow cabinet.

Take his response to the riots. His initial reaction, calling for firm action against the perpetrators, and standing four square behind the government, was tactically sound. But having adopted a tough policy stance he appeared to lose his nerve. He retreated behind ill-timed calls for a public inquiry and demands for responsibility from the bankers that made it look like he was trying to shift responsibility from the rioters. Then, as Cameron’s uncompromising stance on sentencing, an issue on which the Labour party was conspicuously silent, began to pay political dividends, he shifted gear again and started to ramp up his own rhetoric on police cuts.

This is classic Ed Miliband. Each of the positions he adopts have their own short-term internal political logic. But when pieced together they invariably  add up to less than the sum of their parts. They also make it impossible for his party, never mind the country, to divine where he is trying to lead them.

And still, the most telling and worrying thing to emerge from the Woodward memo is not what is contained within the document itself. It is the reaction to it. When we picked up our Sunday newspapers to be informed that the leader of the Labour party was about to shift his party dramatically to the left, what was our response? Some expressed alarm, others support. “Why does he do these things”, was a common refrain. “Good for Ed”, a rarer one.

But very few people expressed disbelief. Genuine, this-is-rubbish-they-must-have-made-it-up-Ed-wouldn’t-do-anything-that-daft, sort of disbelief. The idea of Ed Miliband merrily marching the Labour movement off a political precipice provoked many reactions from many people. But implausibility wasn’t one of them.

All of which presents  Ed Miliband with  his biggest problem. Lack of definition. Almost  a year into his leadership people still struggle to identify who he is or what he wants to do. And as a result they think he could be or do anything.

In contrast, look at this response in the Daily Mail from a Labour MP, reflecting a more mainstream perception of David Cameron; ‘What is the point in trying to brand Cameron a rabid right-winger when the public can see for themselves that he is not”?  So say the Labour back benches.

Our prime minister has many faults. But he has managed to position himself in such a way that even Labour MPs privately admit trying to paint him as Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit’s love child will fail the most basic of credibility tests. He has not managed to decontaminate the Tory brand. But he has gone some way to decontaminating himself.

“Our private polling shows Cameron is to the right of the public”, a Labour insider told me this week. Very probably. But opinion polls show that the Labour party currently sits to the left of the political centre ground. And Ed Miliband sits even further to the left than his party.

The Woodward memo does not give us an insight into Ed Miliband’s thinking. But it does give an insight into what we think about Ed Miliband. And the truth is that we know less about him now than we did a year ago.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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8 Responses to “Ed’s not that daft – but we didn’t know that”

  1. Robert says:

    We all expected Miliband to end up being the brave new Lefty, sadly he’s more to the right then Blair, money seem to do this to people.

    Newer Labour is all about trying to get the Tories voters back so they will be working hard maybe even to having Blair back as special advisor.

    VLabourbour get the Tories.

  2. Jimbo says:

    Problem is that Ed listens to the policy wonks, and only those people allowed to meet him. If Ed could lose the party wonks and actually speak to people on the street, he could produce good policies. But whilst the party machine prevents normal people like Gillain Duffy and Walter Wolfgang speaking what chance do we have?

  3. Blue Ed says:

    The Tories dodged a bullet when Ed got the job. Get David in, or get used to the wilderness.

  4. swatantra says:

    Cameron seems to have packed his Cabinet with ex Leaders and and ex Ministers and ex would be’s and has been’s and yesterdays men and women.
    There is no danger of Ed repeating that mistake.
    Labours strategy is in fact to woo back former disillusioned Labour voters and the uncommitted and floating voters and the tactical voters.
    The undiscerning Tory voter will never change. Most are ashamed to admit voting Tory anyway.
    Ed still remains a centre middle ground politician, neither left or right.
    And Hodges is absolutely right: Ed still doesn’t know where he stands a year on, so the safest position is to stick in the middle.

  5. Frederick James says:

    “Cameron seems to have packed his Cabinet with ex Leaders and and ex Ministers and ex would be’s and has been’s and yesterdays men and women.
    There is no danger of Ed repeating that mistake.”

    Are you being jocular, swatantra??!

  6. Frederick James says:


    The Shadow Cabinet

    Leader of the Labour Party
    Ed Miliband

    Deputy Leader and Shadow Secretary of State for International Development
    Harriet Harman

    Shadow Chancellor
    Ed Balls

    Shadow Foreign Secretary
    Douglas Alexander

    Shadow Chief Whip
    Rosie Winterton

    Shadow Home Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities
    Rt Hon Yvette Cooper MP

    Shadow Chief Secretary
    Angela Eagle

    Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Innovation & Skills
    John Denham

    Cabinet Office and Minister for the Olympics
    Tessa Jowell

    Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government
    Caroline Flint

    Shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media & Sport
    Ivan Lewis

    Shadow Leader of the House of Commons
    Hilary Benn

    Shadow Secretary of State for Defence
    Jim Murphy

    Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
    Mary Creagh

    Shadow Secretary of State for Education and Election Coordinator
    Andy Burnham

    Shadow Lord Chancellor, Secretary of State for Justice
    Sadiq Khan

    Shadow Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change
    Meg Hillier

    Shadow Secretary of State for Health
    John Healey

    Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland
    Shaun Woodward

    Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland
    Ann McKechin

    Shadow Secretary of State for Transport
    Maria Eagle

    Shadow Secretary of State for Wales
    Peter Hain

    Shadow Secretary of State for Work & Pensions
    Liam Byrne

    Shadow Leader of the House of Lords
    Baroness Royall

    Shadow Lords Chief Whip
    Lord Bassam of Brighton

    Shadow Attorney-General
    Baroness Scotland of Asthal QC

  7. AmberStar says:

    @ Fredrick James

    The only point which you are unintentionally making is that Ed M was right to say he must be able to pick his own shadow cabinet & not be restricted to the candidates voted for by Labour MPs.

  8. AmberStar says:

    But very few people expressed disbelief. Genuine, this-is-rubbish-they-must-have-made-it-up-Ed-wouldn’t-do-anything-that-daft, sort of disbelief.
    Does saying: “Shaun Woodward obviously has way too much time on his hands; Ed should find him something useful to do,” qualify as “disbelief”?

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