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.

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How should Labour's disgruntled moderates behave?

The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition. Sometimes exiting can be brave.

When Albert O. Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, Loyalty: Responses to decline in Firms, Organizations, and States he wasn’t thinking of the British Labour Party.  That doesn’t mean, though, that one of the world’s seminal applications of economics to politics can’t help us clarify the options open to the 80 to 90 per cent of Labour MPs who, after another week of utter chaos, are in total despair at what’s happening under Jeremy Corbyn.

According to Hirschman, people in their situation have essentially three choices – all of which stand some chance, although there are no guarantees, of turning things around sooner or later.

The first option is simply to get the hell out: exit, after all, can send a pretty powerful, market-style signal to those at the top that things are going wrong and that something has to change.

The second option is to speak up and shout out: if the leadership’s not listening then complaining loudly might mean they get the message.

The third option is to sit tight and shut up, believing that if the boat isn’t rocked it will somehow eventually make it safely to port.

Most Labour MPs have so far plumped for the third course of action.  They’ve battened down the hatches and are waiting for the storm to pass.  In some ways, that makes sense.  For one thing, Labour’s rules and Corbyn’s famous ‘mandate’ make him difficult to dislodge, and anyone seen to move against him risks deselection by angry activists.

For another, there will be a reckoning – a general election defeat so bad that it will be difficult even for diehards to deny there’s a problem: maybe Labour has to do ‘déjà vu all over again’ and lose like it did in 1983 in order to come to its senses. The problem, however, is that this scenario could still see it stuck in opposition for at least a decade. And that’s presuming that the left hasn’t so effectively consolidated its grip on the party that it can’t get out from under.

That’s presumably why a handful of Labour MPs have gone for option two – voice.  Michael Dugher, John Woodcock, Kevan Jones, Wes Streeting and, of course, John Mann have made it pretty clear they think the whole thing’s a mess and that something – ideally Jeremy Corbyn and those around him – has to give.  They’re joined by others – most recently Stephen Kinnock, who’s talked about the party having to take ‘remedial action’ if its performance in local elections turns out to be as woeful as some are suggesting.  And then of course there are potential leadership challengers making none-too-coded keynote speeches and public appearances (both virtual and real), as well as a whole host of back and frontbenchers prepared to criticise Corbyn and those around him, but only off the record.

So far, however, we’ve seen no-one prepared to take the exit option – or at least to go the whole hog. Admittedly, some, like Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna, Dan Jarvis, Yvette Cooper, and Rachel Reeves, have gone halfway by pointedly refusing to serve in Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet.  But nobody has so far declared their intention to leave politics altogether or to quit the party, either to become an independent or to try to set up something else.

The latter is easily dismissed as a pipe-dream, especially in the light of what happened when Labour moderates tried to do it with the SDP in the eighties.  But maybe it’s time to think again.  After all, in order to refuse even to contemplate it you have to believe that the pendulum will naturally swing back to Labour at a time when, all over Europe, the centre-left looks like being left behind by the march of time and when, in the UK, there seems precious little chance of a now shrunken, predominantly public-sector union movement urging the party back to the centre ground in the same way that its more powerful predecessors did back in the fifties and the late-eighties and nineties. 

Maybe it’s also worth wondering whether those Labour MPs who left for the SDP could and should have done things differently.  Instead of simply jumping ship in relatively small numbers and then staying in parliament, something much bolder and much more dramatic is needed.  What if over one hundred current Labour MPs simultaneously declared they were setting up ‘Real Labour’?  What if they simultaneously resigned from the Commons and then simultaneously fought scores of by-elections under that banner?

To many, even to ask the question is to answer it. The obstacles – political, procedural, and financial – are formidable and forbidding.  The risks are huge and the pay-off massively uncertain.  Indeed, the whole idea can be swiftly written off as a thought-experiment explicitly designed to demonstrate that nothing like it will ever come to pass.

On the other hand, Labour MPs, whether we use Hirschman’s three-way schema or not, are fast running out of options.  The price for loyalty looks like being long-term opposition.  Voice can only do so much when those you’re complaining about seem – in both senses of the word – immovable.  Exit, of course, can easily be made to seem like the coward’s way out. Sometimes, however, it really is the bravest and the best thing to do.

Tim Bale is professor of politics at QMUL. His latest book, Five Year Mission, chronicles Ed Miliband's leadership of the Labour party.