Ed Miliband’s no leader. He’s too busy messaging
The new leader’s reluctance to pick a fight and keenness to play to the Left made for an unconvincing start
On Ed Tuesday I didn’t go to the hall for the speech, but walked around the centre of Manchester instead, reminding myself of the last Labour election-winner’s dictum that most people have little time in their lives for politics. Conferences exist in bubbles, little moon-colonies of delegates, journalists and poliphiles, who share priorities and perceptions. Best, in many ways (as with hyped movies), to have the experience outside the immediate rumpus. To come to it fresh.
So I read the speech as a text and, like any watcher of the news, watched the highlights, looking not to see what kind of man Ed Miliband is, but what kind of leader he might be. As a person I already knew him to be very easy to be around. He lacks pomposity — at least for the moment — and is uncarapaced. His brother is far more armoured and wary.
I understood all that. But what would he actually want to do as the most likely alternative prime minister, and with what clarity, courage and determination would he seek to achieve it? That was unknown territory, with his big speech offering the first clues.
My desire was to be able to say that I liked it, thus joining with all those on the Centre Left who now have to hitch their rickety wagons to Ed’s engine. If it wasn’t perfect, well it was his first; if it wasn’t very definite on anything, well it was early days; if it outlined no clear philosophy on any area of policy or governance, well it had to cover a lot of ground very quickly. And it was nicely said, with a strong beginning and a speechily satisfying end.
But the more I looked at it, the more I worried about it. And not just because of the “new generation” stuff. All new leaders are permitted such atrocities, although I hated new-generation talk even when I was the new generation. All generations, it seems to me, have their share of onanists, the most seed-scattering of whom talk a lot about their generation.
Nor was it just because of what I would call the weedy dialectic of it — the continuous use of a conventional suggestion, balanced by a “but” before it had any chance of becoming controversial. This just gave the speech a slightly nervous quality, as though Mr Ed Miliband was driving his first motorised lawnmower between a series of small bunkers. All understandable.
No. What was remarkable to me were the passages suggesting three very concerning traits in Mr M and his speech-writing staff. The first was an almost perverse desire not to lead. The second was a dangerous ignorance about the world and the immediate past. And the third was a ruthless carelessness about what you might call the “collateral damage” likely to be caused by expedient political positioning.
Leadership first, and an example. Ed had a big generational peroration ending thus: “So we need to reform our House of Commons and I support changing our voting system and will vote ‘yes’ in the referendum on AV.” Well that’s OK, isn’t it? Er, no. Can you imagine Tony Blair or Margaret Thatcher making a conference speech in which they merely promise their own individual vote for a significant reform, and leave it at that?
The leader of a party, contemplating an important measure to achieve the change that he has just said his generation needs, should pledge to put his party at the vanguard of the change — he shouldn’t tell you that he’ll merely stick his one X on the ballot paper and feel he’s done his duty. But not Ed. And why not? Presumably because it means a difficult fight with anti-AV people in his party, a fight he might even lose, and he doesn’t want it.
There are several other examples of feints of leadership in the speech, but I must move on. Early on in the speech appeared this passage: “This generation wants to change our foreign policy so that it’s always based on values, not just alliances.” Pretty clearly what is being said here is that past foreign policy (ie, Labour foreign policy) was motivated by a desire to be close to America, rather than by principle.
This is utterly and completely wrong. In fact the truth is the exact opposite: in order to achieve its principles, the Blair Government used its alliances. It acted alone in Sierra Leone, rode the Clinton alliance hard to get a result in Kosovo, pushed like hell for active diplomacy in the Middle East, and led the campaign for aid to Africa.
Indeed some of Tony Blair’s most unpopular stances — such as that on the Israeli-Hezbollah war of 2006 — owed everything (perhaps too much) to principle and too little to realpolitik. In making this accusation it seems to me unlikely that Ed Miliband or any of his advisers have so much as read Mr Blair’s Chicago speech of 1999, in which his sophisticated arguments about principle and practice in foreign affairs were laid out.
Which brings me to my third point — the casualties of the younger Miliband’s positioning. My guess is that what made his brother really angry was not the reiteration of the younger’s views on Iraq, but its coming after the earlier passage that effectively accused David of unprincipled American ass-licking. But the Iraq business cannot have helped.
There must have been other ways for Ed to make the point he wanted to, without seeming to jump on the “Bliar” bandwagon. After all, what exactly was he saying? That it was wrong with hindsight — once we knew there were no WMD — to invade? Or that it was wrong, even if Saddam had had WMD, without a second UN resolution? The first is meaningless. The second prompts the question of why the younger Miliband did not make his opposition public, where it might have counted.
But everyone knew what it was actually supposed to mean. Tony et al (Mili Sr being a leading et al) had done something bad. And why was Israel and Gaza in his speech when Pakistan — of infinitely more concern to us in Britain — was absent? Because he was sending messages to a particular constituency, not actually leading. Such messaging has cost Labour his brother, and I can’t help feeling that this must really have been what he wanted.
It was reported yesterday that Lord Kinnock, speaking at a fringe meeting, told the story of how, after Ed’s speech, “a trade union delegate leant over and said, ‘Neil, we’ve got our party back’.” Lord Kinnock added: “I thought that was so accurate.” Unbelievable. And I hope I’m wrong, but the early signs are that the new Labour leader combines personal ruthlessness (bye-bye, Nick Brown) with political timidity.
Smiley Gordon, perhaps.
Labour looks to the future
No sooner had Ed Miliband been elected Labour leader than several influential commentators, including Benedict Brogan of the Telegraph and Iain Martin of the Wall Street Journal, were insisting that his chances shouldn’t be written off. Tim Montgomerie, of ConservativeHome, makes a similar point in today’s Times. I don’t agree. Miliband’s election is a disaster for the Labour Party and the health of British politics. He will never be Prime Minister and his leadership will severely weaken the cause of a revived centre-Left in Britain.
I make no claim for my own perspicacity, but some things are blindingly obvious. One of these was that Gordon Brown was unfit to be Prime Minister and would prove useless in the role, and I said this long before he entered No 10. Ed Miliband’s leadership is the equivalent of electing Neil Kinnock in 1983. Labour’s share of the poll in 2010 was only one percentage point higher than Michael Foot achieved. And it took Kinnock till 1989 even to abandon the policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, which in the meantime had cost Labour millions of votes once more in a landslide defeat in 1987.
Miliband is a leader in the Kinnock mould. He is not the leader that Labour needs, because he believes that Labour is essentially right. And it isn’t. Social democracy is an anachronism that has never seriously come to terms with Keynes. A Chancellor who realised that the capitalist economy was cyclically unstable, and hence that fiscal policy should be counter-cylical, would not have allowed public spending as a share of GDP to rise by eight percentage points during a ten-year business expansion. But Gordon Brown thought differently.
When Tony Blair became leader in 1994, he started as he meant to go on by declaring what was wrong with Labour – specifically its historic commitment to public ownership. Blair remains the only leader in the party’s history to have won three successive general elections. David Miliband, who is a contemporary and sometime comrade of mine, would have been at a minimum a capable leader. He was a good Foreign Secretary, who understood instinctively the most urgent threat to Western security, which is Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability. He acted, incidentally, with graciousness on being defeated for the leadership, when he might reasonably have said that the result lacked democratic legitimacy.
And that brings me to Labour’s system for electing a leader. It is a democratic outrage. The origins of this baroque “electoral college” system lie in the Bennite insurgency of the early 1980s. Tony Benn and his supporters put forward no disinterested case for reform: they were concerned purely with seizing power for themselves by any organisational manoeuvre. In all the previous leadership elections – in 1983, 1988, 1992 and 1994 – conducted under this system, the result has been a decisive victory for one candidate. But its farcical and unprincipled character was demonstrated in the very first election in which it was employed, when Denis Healey just scraped victory against Tony Benn for the meaningless position of deputy leader in 1981. The Transport and General Workers’ Union, which on its own held a block vote worth eight per cent of the entire electoral college, ignored their members’ wishes and voted for Benn (having in the first ballot voted for the third candidate, John Silkin, whom none of its branches had supported). Labour has maintained this contraption, while merely tinkering with the voting weights. As a result, the party now has a leader whom only a minority of its MPs and constituency members voted for. Labour must never have another election under this system. The franchise properly belongs to Labour MPs, and to them alone.
Now watch as Oliver Kamm sends me a message to say “stop ripping off my articles!”