It's not about Englishness, it's about the meaning of Ed

The Labour leader wants to challenge preconceptions about what a Prime Minister is supposed to look and sound like.

Ed Miliband’s speech yesterday on English identity and the Union attracted a good deal of attention and commentary. (Some of it is reworked in an op-ed for today’s Telegraph.) Inevitably, it has divided opinion – the spectrum ranges from those who think it was a superficial intervention on an important subject to those who think it was an important intervention on a superficial subject. In the middle will be quite a few who are cautiously intrigued and made curious to hear more, which is enough of a win for Miliband. No-one is going to agree on the precise meaning of Englishness and how it interacts with Britishness and no politician is going to satisfactorily resolve the issues in one speech.

The theme is to be developed over the coming weeks and months and woven into a discussion of wider and more pertinent policy themes. A big speech on immigration – an obvious question raised by the discussion of national identity and tricky terrain for Labour – is, I learn, coming up soon. The intention is to engage with public anxiety on the subject, building on some of the points in the Englishness/Britishness debate, but without reaching for the obvious bemoaning of un-policed borders coupled with blood-curdling pledges to crack down that have become the political default setting whenever the topic is broached.

Meanwhile, I suspect Team Ed will just be glad that so many people are chattering about a topic their man placed on the agenda. Starting the conversation instead of reacting to events is one of the trickier aspects of opposition. One passage of the speech that leapt out at me, however, was not his discussion of what it means to be English or what it means to be part of the United Kingdom, but what it means to be Ed Miliband:

This is who I am. The son of a Jewish refugee and Marxist academic. A Leeds supporter, from North London. A baseball fan. Somebody who looks a bit like Wallace from Wallace and Gromit. If spin doctors could design a politician, I suspect he wouldn’t look like me.

This is not just a casual joke to warm up the audience. The self-deprecation comes naturally to Miliband but that doesn’t mean it isn’t also very carefully considered. Miliband’s strategists long ago came to the conclusion that he will struggle to compete with David Cameron in a Presidential-style beauty contest election. Focus groups of voters have reported difficulty seeing in the Labour leader the kind of qualities that, according to conventional wisdom, are exuded by a man striding purposefully towards Downing Street. Miliband does not, so the thinking goes, resemble the Prime Minister from central casting and attempts to make him act, sound and perform like one fall flat. “He is at his worst when trying to do a Blair or a Cameron,” concedes one aide.

So the plan is to challenge perceptions of what constitutes the obvious image of a Prime Minister – to own and subvert the jibe that Miliband looks a bit like Wallace until it becomes a kind of advantage. The thought the Labour leader’s team want to trigger in voters’ minds is something along the lines of: “Yes, he doesn’t necessary conform to conventional expectations of a PM, but these are unconventional times and, besides, we have a smooth performer in Cameron - slick, confident, classic leadership material according to the rule book - and he tuned out to have no substance, out of touch ..” etc. (Team Ed are very keen on projecting the idea of “ripping up the rules” of conventional politics.)

The strategy is not without risk. Embracing the idea that the Labour leader is a bit of a geek might not do him any favours. The message, as one friend of Miliband jokes affectionately, has to be more dynamic than “Ed: the guy who will help Britain with its homework.”

But the current thinking around the leader is that he might as well promote what he is instead of trying to be something he isn’t. In an age of ferocious cynicism about politics, authenticity is the most precious commodity a candidate can have. There is, of course, a tricky contradiction involved in the whole business of spinning authenticity – a paradox in itself. There are painful memories in the Labour camp of trying something similar with Gordon Brown. “Not Flash, Just Gordon” – was the slogan for a while. It worked, up to a point. The comparison is flimsy, though. The two men have vastly different personalities and campaign in vastly different circumstances. Brown was a deeply unpopular incumbent; Miliband a largely unknown challenger.

Expect more of those self-deprecating little jokes, asides and riffs about the cliches of conventional politics and what a PM is supposed to look and sound like. They are part of a very deliberate strategy to persuade people a PM can actually look and sound like Edward Miliband.

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

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.