Ed's hit himself with a hammer. Why is he surprised it hurts?

Miliband is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where the centre ground is.

Ed Miliband said before he arrived in Liverpool he wanted to re-write the political rulebook. Yesterday, he succeeded.

The rules for party conference speeches go something like this. The leader arrives. It is billed either as "make or break" if they are under pressure, or "the most important speech of their life" if they are on the verge of political breakthrough. In Ed's case I think we can safely put that breakthrough stuff aside for a moment.

Prior to the great address there are mutterings of discontent. Noises off that hint at dark deeds if the becalmed or embattled leader does not deliver. Then he rises. A self deprecating joke. Thanks to the spouse. A plea to "get to work" or "down to business".

Forty minutes later the world has turned. Conference is on it's feet, the critics silenced. For one brief moment the mists clear and our troubled politician again catches a glimpse of the sunlit uplands.

If only. There are no sunny uplands on Ed Miliband's horizon today. "It was obvious he was attempting to move his party away from the territory on which Tony Blair fought elections", said the Times, "It was also the territory on which Mr Blair won elections. And Mr Miliband may have moved just a little farther from that too". "Ed Miliband's shift to the left is a gift for the Tories", said Ben Brogan in the Telegraph.

This morning Labour's leader should have been basking in the plaudits. Instead he was roaming the TV and radio studios in a desperate attempt at damage limitation. "I'm not anti-business" he said over and over. His party wasn't lurching to the left but "firmly in the middle ground of politics".

Fine. But what exactly did Ed Miliband expect? What reaction was he looking for to a speech from a Labour leader that divided the nation into "producers" and "predators", attacked '"bad" businesses and "consensus" politics, declared war on "vested interests", and announced to loud cheers he was nothing like a man who had secured three successive electoral mandates from the British people.

"I genuinely don't understand", said one shadow cabinet source this morning, "why give a speech like that and then get cross when it gets written up that way". Quite. Watching Ed Miliband today has been like watching someone pick up a hammer, hit themselves in the head and then cry out in surprise, "Oh my god, that hurt me!".

To be fair, some of Ed Miliband's supporters are realistic about the implications of the strategy they're adopting. "If you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks", one insider said yesterday, "a safety first approach just won't cut it". There is also some relief amongst his team that the 'no definition, no strategy' monkey he's been carrying around for the past year has finally been prised from his back, "I don't think Ed will be too unhappy if the interpretation is he's found direction, even if there's some criticism of what that direction is", said one source.

But there's removing a monkey from your back, and there's burning it off with a flamethrower. Yesterday Ed Miliband chose to do the latter, and the general impression of a man who has decided to march his party off to the left is toxic.

It also underlines one of the central problems of his leadership. That is that whilst Ed Miliband understands the need to occupy the middle ground of politics, he is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where it is.

If he took the time to skim through that political rulebook he is so intent on shredding he would find on page one, paragraph one the following; "During times of recession and economic hardship the electorate becomes more conservative".

When Ed Miliband says that since the glory years of New Labour the centre of gravity of British politics has shifted, he's right. But it hasn't moved towards the Labour party, but away from it.

Yes people dislike the bankers. But what they dislike was their profligacy, and their reaction is a demand for greater fiscal responsibility and prudence. People are struggling financially. Which means they have even less time for their fellow citizens who try to milk the benefits system or do their shopping through a smashed store-front window.

At times yesterday Ed Miliband tried to acknowledge that. But those nods and winks were lost within his overall narrative. People yearning for stability will not embrace a leader who tells them his leadership will involve, "taking risks". People with a longing for security will not readily turn towards someone who believes "nobody ever changed things on the basis of consensus".

Ed Miliband has decided to do things his own way; be his own man. There is, he said, nothing to be gained from, "wanting to be liked". Judging by the reaction to his speech, perhaps that's just as well.

Getty
Show Hide image

Justin Trudeau points the way forward for European politics

Is the charismatic Canadian Prime Minister modelling the party of the future?

Six months after Canadian election day, Justin Trudeau’s Liberal party continues to bask in the glow of victory. With 44 per cent of support in the polls, the Liberals are the most popular party amongst every single demographic – men and women, young and old, and people of all educational backgrounds. 

While most European mainstream parties only dream of such approval, this is actually a small dip for the Liberals. They were enjoying almost 50 per cent support in the polls up until budget day on 21 March. Even after announcing $29.4 billion in deficit spending, Canadians overall viewed the budget favourably – only 34 per cent said they would vote to defeat it.

Progressives around the world are suddenly intrigued by Canadian politics. Why is Justin Trudeau so successful?

Of course it helps that the new Prime Minister is young, handsome and loves pandas (who doesn’t?) But it’s also true that he was leader of the Liberals for a year and half before the election. He brought with him an initial surge in support for the party. But he also oversaw its steady decline in the lead up to last year’s election – leadership is important, but clearly it isn’t the only factor behind the Liberals’ success today.

Context matters

As disappointing as it is for Europeans seeking to unpack Canadian secrets, the truth is that a large part of the Liberals’ success was also down to the former Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s extreme unpopularity by election time.

Throughout almost ten years in power, Harper shifted Canada markedly to the right. His Conservative government did not just alter policies; it started changing the rules of the democratic game. While centre-right governments in Europe may be implementing policies that progressives dislike, they are nonetheless operating within the constraints of democratic systems (for the most part; Hungary and Poland are exceptions).

Which is why the first weeks of the election campaign were dominated by an ‘Anybody But Harper’ sentiment, benefitting both the Liberals and the left-wing New Democratic Party (NDP). The NDP was even leading the polls for a while, inviting pundits to consider the possibility of a hung parliament.

But eight days before election day, the Liberals began to pull ahead.

The most important reason – and why they continue to be so popular today – is that they were able to own the mantle of ‘change’. They were the only party to promise running a (small) deficit and invest heavily in infrastructure. Notably absent was abstract discourse about tackling inequality. Trudeau’s plan was about fairness for the middle class, promoting social justice and economic growth.

Democratic reform was also a core feature of the Liberal campaign, which the party has maintained in government – Trudeau appointed a new Minister of Democratic Institutions and promised a change in the voting system before the next election.

The change has also been in style, however. Justin Trudeau is rebranding Canada as an open, progressive, plural society. Even though this was Canada’s reputation pre-Harper, it is not as simple as turning back the clock.

In a world increasingly taken by populist rhetoric on immigration – not just by politicians like Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Marine Le Pen and other right-wingers, but also increasingly by mainstream politicians of right and left – Justin Trudeau has been unashamedly proclaiming the benefits of living in a diverse, plural society. He repeatedly calls himself a feminist, in the hope that one day “it is met with a shrug” rather than a social media explosion. Live-streamed Global Town Halls are one part of a renewed openness with the media. Progressive politicians in Europe would do well to take note.

Questioning the role of political parties today

Another interesting development is that the Liberal party is implicitly questioning the point of parties today. It recently abolished fee-paying, card-carrying party members. While this has been met with some criticism regarding the party’s structure and integrity, with commentators worried that “it’s the equivalent of turning your party into one giant Facebook page: Click ‘Like’ and you’re in the club,” it seems this is the point.

Colin Horgan, one of Trudeau’s former speechwriters, explains that Facebook is “literally a treasure trove for political parties”. All kinds of information becomes available – for free; supporters become easier to contact.

It was something the Liberals were already hinting at two years ago when they introduced a ‘supporters’ category to make the party appear more open. Liberal president Anna Gainey also used the word “movement” to describe what the Liberals hope to be.

And yes, they are trying to win over millennials. Which proved to be a good strategy, as a new study shows that Canadians aged 18-25 were a key reason why the Liberals won a majority. Young voter turnout was up by 12 per cent from the last election in 2011; among this age group, 45 per cent voted for the Liberals.

Some interesting questions for European progressives to consider. Of course, some of the newer political parties in Europe have already been experimenting with looser membership structures and less hierarchical ways of engaging, like Podemos’ ‘circles’ in Spain and the Five Star Movement’s ‘liquid democracy’ in Italy.

The British centre-left may be hesitant after its recent fiasco. Labour opened up its leadership primary to ‘supporters’ and ended up with a polarising leader who is extremely popular amongst members, but unpopular amongst the British public. But it would be wrong to assume that the process was to blame.

The better comparison is perhaps to Emmanuel Macron, France’s young economy minister who recently launched his own movement ‘En Marche !’ Moving beyond the traditional party structure, he is attempting to unite ‘right’ and ‘left’ by inspiring French people with an optimistic vision of the future. Time will tell whether this works to engage people in the longer term, or at least until next year’s presidential election.

In any case, European parties could start by asking themselves: What kind of political parties are they? What is the point of them?

Most importantly: What do they want people to think is the point of them?

Ultimately, the Canadian Liberals’ model of success rests on three main pillars:

  1. They unambiguously promote and defend a progressive, open, plural vision of society.
  2. They have a coherent economic plan focused on social justice and economic growth which, most importantly, they are trusted to deliver.
  3. They understand that society has changed – people are more interconnected than ever, relationships are less hierarchical and networks exist online – and they are adapting a once rigid party structure into a looser, open movement to reflect that.

*And as a bonus, a young, charismatic leader doesn’t hurt either.

Claudia Chwalisz is a Senior Policy Researcher at Policy Network, a Crook Public Service Fellow at the University of Sheffield and author of The Populist Signal: Why Politics and Democracy Need to Change