Will The Man In the Street Become Ed's Friend?

Ed Miliband needs to find the centre ground and make moves towards it

Jon Lydon, aka Johnny Rotten, was once asked by an interviewer if he had ever looked to "the man in the street" for inspiration for his songs. "Nah", he replied, "I met the man in the street once. He was a c***".

If Ed Miliband is ever asked a similar question he'll probably offer a more generous appraisal of his fellow citizens. Hopefully he'll also point out he's the leader of the Labour party, not anarchic front man for a revolutionary new teenage sub-culture, though these day's you can never be quite sure. But Ed Miliband likes the man in the street. And in tomorrow's speech to Labour party conference he's going to endeavour to make him his friend.

The leders annual conference address , currently being reworked by Ed Miliband himself, and feverishly polished by Greg Beales and half a dozen assorted aides, is always a closely guarded secret. And as such details of it have already been leaking like a sieve. Aside from the beatification of Tom Watson, and efforts to shamelessly bask in the reflective glory of the exposure of the phone-hacking scandal, two themes are set to dominate. The requirement for Labour to occupy the political middle-ground, and the need for Labour to seize control of the "responsibility agenda" in order to do so.

Both are potentially productive strategies. The idea of planting Labour's red flag in the electoral centre is hardly new. But given Ed Miliband's early fixation with constructing a "progressive majority", his decision to at least attempt to embrace a more orthodox constituency is a sign of progress.

As is his focus on responsibility. Miliband's June speech to London community activists, in which he grasped the nettle of welfare reform, and had harsh words for those at the bottom of the income scale who abuse the benefits system, was his best to date. It took him out of his comfort zone, demonstrated he was prepared to challenge prevailing wisdom within his own party, and showed he had the confidence to confront the Tories on territory they believed was theirs by right.

All sorted then. Quick tour of the middle ground. Short lecture on responsibility. Bash the bankers, Rupert Murdoch and Nick Clegg. Toynbee salivating, Mirror cheering, Man in the Street swooning. Job done.

If only. Gone are the days when the leader of the Labour party could seduce us all with an easy blend of self-deprecating humour, faux sincerity and estuary English. Whilst Tony Blair had his finger the pulse of the nation, Ed Miliband has been struggling to even find his stethoscope.

Take that ambition to secure a long-term lease on the centre ground. A great idea in concept. But does he actually know where the middle ground is?

We had something of an insight a few weeks ago with the leaking/briefing of the Shaun Wooward memo. According to that analysis the Man in the Street is blasé about the deficit; "My credit card's maxed out", he says, "but lets whack a bit more on till the trouble passes". He's also opposed to immigration capping; "let 'em in", is his liberal attitude, "plenty of room for more where they came from". On welfare he takes an equally progressive view; "a hand out, not a hand up. That's what those poor blighters need".

Ed Miliband's team moved quickly to point out Woodward was merely providing an analysis of the Tory party's direction of travel, rather than a blueprint for Labour's own. But it was still telling that tough stances on deficit reduction, immigration and crime were perceived to represent a move away from the political mainstream. Many observers would argue they sit slap bang in the middle of it.

Which begs another question. Even if Ed Miliband does identify where the middle ground is, does he have the will and means to move towards it? As one shadow cabinet source said, "You can't just keep saying you want to occupy the centre ground. You have to actively travel towards it".

Travel towards it. Or build it around you? There are some within Ed Miliband's circle who argue that running around trying to divine public opinion is a mugs game. They believe the political centre is shifting, and it's moving in their direction; "I'm absolutely a leader placing my party firmly in the centre ground but there's a new centre ground in our politics", Miliband said back in June, "The new centre ground, for example, that means you speak out on these issues of press responsibility, a new centre ground that says that responsibility in the banking system - which we didn't talk about enough when we were in government - is relevant, a new centre ground that says people are worried about concentrations of private power in this country when it leads to abuses". In the same way the rules of the game are seemingly being re-written in Labour's favour, so the terrain is perceived to be naturally gravitating leftwards.

But not everyone is so comfortable with this analysis. The political centre, "Is not a place that the party gets to pick", Liam Byrne pointedly told delegates in his speech yesterday. ?"The centre-ground is where voters say it is. Our challenge now is to change and move in and say once more the centre-ground is our home-ground, and this is where we fight". There are a number of others in the shadow cabinet who would also like a little less conversation about occupying the middle-ground and a little more action.

Sadly, Miliband's speech writers keep falling foul of their own unique brand of realpolitik. An insider cites a debate over a particular passage referring to a "covenant with the British people". It was included in an early draft, but was then deemed to have too many quasi-religious overtones. Then someone else thought it sounded too Blairite, which killed the "covenant" off for good. A "contract" was then muted. But that was thought too corporate. Bankers have contracts. And so "the Labour Deal" was born. "Are we a party or a supermarket chain", once source moaned.

Similar issues surrounded another key theme, the impending assault on Britain's "vested interests". Would this be extended to include, for example, those who view the benefits system as a vested interest, Miliband was asked by one his shadow cabinet colleagues. "No" was the response. They were to stick to people at the top of the income ladder.

The middle-ground. The responsibility agenda. The Labour Deal. These will be Ed Miliband's key offerings to the man in the street. Whether he will accept this kind offer is another matter. He may not be a c***. But he can certainly be an awkward bugger.

Photo: Getty
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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.