Miliband has finally achieved total command – but will Blue Ed or Brown Ed take the spoils?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

There should be a word for the mixed emotions that working parents feel when their children’s teachers go on strike. Moral support for aggrieved educators clashes with irritation at the need for emergency childcare. What do you call solidarity softened by resentment? Semisolidarity?

One person who will be unperturbed by the pedagogic walkout on 17 October is Michael Gove. The Education Secretary is on a mission to smash what he sees as a reactionary educational establishment that protects its own privileges more rigorously than it pursues children’s enlightenment. Howls of pain from the NUT are his proof that the plan is working.

It doesn’t do the Tories any favours to alienate a profession that enjoys far more public sympathy than politicians do. At the same time, making parents feel like collateral damage in someone else’s war isn’t a winning strategy for teachers.

The big teaching unions are not formally affiliated to the Labour Party but that doesn’t stop Conservatives trying to make industrial action the opposition’s problem. Tories don’t need much of a pretext to call Ed Miliband a born appeaser of Trotskyite militants. Labour can truthfully deny all responsibility for strikes yet still be discomfited by them.

It is an awkward fact that unions do not inspire a comradeship outside the club of their own members. It is rational for public sector workers to fight against paltry pay rises and to defend their pensions. It is less obvious why private-sector workers at the bottom of the heap whose employers give them no pay rise and no pension at all should cheer them on.

This fracturing of labour solidarity is a crisis for the left. Austerity has not mobilised the masses against a government of capitalist oppressors. It has not galvanised the nation with a noble sense of collective endeavour. The evidence suggests it has made us more jealous in guarding what we have and likelier to suspect others of taking more than their fair share. Across a range of domestic and foreign policies, Labour is struggling to adapt to the mean spirit of the times. Activists cherish a welfare system that subsidises people who earn little or nothing with cash transfers from their neighbours. Public consent for that model is vanishing. The left venerates the anti-racist tradition of refusing to blame foreigners for shortages of jobs and homes. That creed is no match for fearmongering parables of an island nation being overrun. Miliband is an instinctive believer in the founding ideal of the European Union – that the continent’s destructive nationalisms dissolve in cross-border trade. Ukip’s depiction of Brussels as an occupying power has more popular credence.

It would be less of a problem for Labour if it were on the wrong side of public opinion on just one of those issues. Combine them and it looks like swimming against a cultural torrent. Yet in recent weeks Miliband’s entourage has been possessed by new optimism. The Labour leader believes his crusade to tackle the rising cost of living has disoriented David Cameron. He calculates that the Conservatives’ allergy to market intervention leaves the Prime Minister bereft of effective responses.

Meanwhile, the shadow cabinet reshuffle has allowed Labour to relaunch existing policy positions into a more receptive media climate. Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, declared that Labour would be “tough but fair” on welfare, which is what Liam Byrne had been trying to say. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, made the same compromise on free schools that Stephen Twigg made back in June (Labour would allow them only in needy areas and would call them something else).The interventions only felt new because the messengers were received as authorised Milibandites and not, as their predecessors had been caricatured, as Blairite provocateurs.

Labour MPs are now watching to see whether new confidence in the leader’s office translates into a more imaginative approach to politics or just tighter control. Seasoned Miliband watchers are familiar with the phenomenon of his two competing political personas. There is the insurgent idealist, the dabbler in “Blue Labour” philosophy that rejects the bureaucratic state as a mechanism for effecting social change. Blue Ed challenges orthodoxies and takes risks. Then there is the Westminster apparatchik who learned politics by watching Gordon Brown sneak up on power. Brown Ed avoids party confrontations and advances in tactical increments.

Blue Ed grasps that the hollowing out of political solidarity in Britain is an existential challenge to the left. He recognises that Labour needs to look and sound like a very different party if it is to turn his “one nation” politics into a genuine antidote to social division. Brown Ed can see a way to eke out the dregs of the old solidarity – public sector loyalists and visceral Tory-haters whose voices can be amplified by a dysfunctional voting system – to smuggle himself into No 10. Advocates of each path have access to Miliband’s ear. Most shadow cabinet ministers profess ignorance of what really goes on in the leader’s office, although they recognise that there is a battle between imagination and caution for possession of Labour’s future.

The moment when a leader asserts his strength is also the point when he is most exposed. After three years of managing divisions and battling disloyalty – some of it real, much of it imagined – Miliband has achieved total command. There is no obstacle to boldness. There is nothing to stop him being as fearless as his friends have always said he can be, which is what the times demand. Caution can be banished. But will it?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit