On no account let "Ed be Ed"

If Ed Miliband tries to be himself, he will be a disaster.

Aaron Sorkin has a lot to answer for. Ever since he penned episode nineteen of the West Wing progressive politics has echoed to a familiar cry: "Let [insert name of struggling liberal politician] be [repeat name of struggling liberal politician]".

As Ed Miliband wearily takes up arms against his latest sea of troubles, so the plea rings out once more . "He should sack any adviser who tells him to be anything other than himself", the New Statesman's Mehdi Hasan told the Independent. "He needs to "speak human" once again, and show he's not just another politician", said Labour List's Mark Ferguson.

There are two problems with this. The first is that Ed Miliband is just that:a politician. It's all he's ever been. As far as I'm aware, apart with flirting with the idea of playing for Leeds United, (one of the few career paths more treacherous than being leader of the Labour Party), that's just about all he's ever wanted to be.

Ed's problem isn't that the public see him as a politician. It's that at the moment they see him as a bad politician. According to the latest poll of polls he's now running behind Iain Duncan-Smith in terms of voter satisfaction. To be fair, he's also running ahead of Michael Howard, William Hague and Michael Foot at a comparable time in their leaderships. But then none of them had a cat in hell's chance of becoming Prime Minister

When people ask Ed Miliband "not to be just another politician" what exactly do they mean? Be an extraordinary politician. Another Churchill, or Roosevelt? A Gandhi? "Ed, we know you don't do huskies. But have you thought about a salt march?"

Or do they mean pretend to be something entirely different? Ed Miliband the florist. Ed Miliband the check out assistant. Ed Miliband the cabbie: "I 'ad that Progressive Majority in the back the other day. They all wanted to go to north London."

Ed Miliband is a career politician. No amount of pool playing or reminiscing about his dad's removal business is going to change that. The public may not be paying much attention to Labour at the moment, but they're not wandering around in blindfolds.

Which leads to the second problem. If Ed Milband is going to be a politician's politician, what sort of politician should that be? Sorkin would say a bold one. Or at least, Leo McGarry, his fictional chief of staff would: "Our ground game isn't working; we're gonna put the ball in the air. If we're gonna walk into walls, I want us running into them full-speed."

Somehow, I can't quite see those words emanating from Lucy Powell. Actually, I can. But I can't see Ed endorsing them: "Look Lucy, that's a little bit aggressive. I want to move away from that sort of politics. Do we have to run into the wall? Can't we just find a way of going round it. Or taking it down? Carefully. With well paid, decomodified labourers?"

The harsh truth is that if we let Bartlett be Bartlett, he'll be a disaster. In the same way that all politicians who try to be themselves court disaster.

John Major's handlers sent him off to Iraq before the 1992 general election and had him posing in the desert with a machine gun and the victorious British troops of Desert Storm. He triumphed at the subsequent election. As soon as they let him be himself he started banging on about out old maids, bicycles and warm beer, and got annihilated.

How different would British political history have been if Alastair Campbell hadn't ensured Tony Blair kept his mouth shut about religion? Or allowed him to wear that vest?

Let Ed be Ed makes for a great line, but lousy politics. I'm not sure that Labour would be in a better place if it's leader had decided to stick with his pledge to back Ken Clarke's sentencing reforms. Or that his recent highly praised speech on welfare reform would have contained the same sense of purpose had he followed his natural sensibilities and excised passages on those who "dodge their responsibilities" and "cheat".

"We'd all like to say what we think", one back bench MP told me the other day. "It'd be great. I'd love to wonder around mouthing off about every issue that took my fancy. But we've got to show responsibility. Ed's got to show responsibility."

It's easy for Ed to be Ed. The hard part is for Ed to be Labour leader. And harder still for him to be Prime Minsiter.

If being yourself was the criteria for leadership, we'd all be leading the Labour party. But thankfully, it's not.

Bartlett was a creation. A fictional character specifically constructed by a writer who knew his favoured brand of radical liberalism couldn't reach the White House any other way.

Forget Bartlett. It's time for Ed to be Hoynes.

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.