Ed Miliband has a strategy. It's called Ralph Nader

Miliband's new strategy is bold, brave, and politically suicidal

Labour's leader has a strategy. It's the wrong strategy. But it's a strategy nonetheless.

The days of drift are over. The search for definition and a coherent narrative are at an end. This week Ed Miliband will present himself as the Ralph Nader of British politics.

Nader was the quintessential east coast liberal. Ed is the quintessential north London liberal. Nader was a self-styled man of the people. In his speech on Tuesday, we will be introduced to the People's Ed. Nader was a consumer champion. Ed began this conference season going to war with the private utilities. Nader believed he could break the mould of US politics. Ed believes he can rip up the rule book that governs our own.

This comparison may seem churlish. In part it is, but it's also made with a degree of respect.

Miliband will not die wondering. This week will see him making the big political play. Miliband genuinely believes something has changed within the body politic. Labour's leader, and those around him, feel they have detected a mood in the country that the politicians, and commentators and rest of us camp-followers have missed.

"You don't understand", one of Miliband's aides told me last week. "The rules of the game have changed. You can't see beyond the New Labour playbook. Politics is different. People are looking at things differently. Ed sees that. You don't'".

He's right. I don't.

But Miliband does. Or at least he thinks he does. And now he's going to act on it. Labour's leader is going to back himself.

Much has been made about the announcement on the cut in student fees. But the most significant thing about it was the papers it was given to. Under Blair and Brown, the eve of conference briefing was traditionally used as a carrot to attract positive coverage from centre-right titles, typically the News of the World or the Sunday Times. Today Ed Miliband came home to the Sunday Mirror and the Observer. He's not just re-writing the rule book, he's re-writing the Sunday leader columns.

Look, too, at those endearing, and politically telling, official photos of Ed arriving at Limestreet with one of the kids on his shoulders. Remember, this is a man who has just been savaged in the media for not appearing Prime Ministerial. Did he choose to fight back? Arrive in an armored limo with a retinue? No. He looked like he was off visiting the Beatles museum, not making a pitch for the keys to Number 10.

The Nader strategy: I am one of you, not one of them. I will not adapt to gain entry into their world. I will make them adapt, and shape their world view to mine -- our -- world view.

It's bold, it's brave, and it's politically suicidal. But you have to hand it to him. Ed Miliband is the new Ed Cojones.

No compromise on Labour's economic message. No let up on the attacks on those at the top of society. No pandering to the right-wing press. Ed will be true to himself, and his party.

There's only one problem. The rules of the game don't change. That's why they're the rules.

Occasionally you can amend them. Reinterpret them. But you cannot do so from opposition. You can only do so from government.

But again, you have to admire Ed's chutzpah. He is leader of a party who secured 29 per cent of the vote at the last election. Since taking over the reigns, Labour's poll ratings have barely twitched. His personal ratings remain padlocked in a box, in a basement at the bottom of the deepest, darkest focus group dungeon.

His response? A declaration of total war against the British establishment. His ambition? The shattering of the Thatcherite neo-liberal consensus. His definition of success? Not just a Labour government, but an irreversible progressive revolution. Not bad for someone who less than a year ago had nothing more than a boyish grin and a blank piece of paper.

It is insanity. Wonderful, heroic, futile insanity. What does Ed Miliband stand for? By the end of this week, we will see. Where is Ed Miliband heading? By Friday the nation will know. Will they follow him there? Of course not. But nor will they be able to pull themselves away from the spectacle.

None of us will. We have not seen a senior politician attempting to defy political gravity like this in our lifetime. Michael Foot was hamstrung by ideology, Iain Duncan-Smith by insecurity.

Ed Miliband is no-one's prisoner, and he is no one's fool. "Where is the real Ed Miliband?" people have been asking. This week he'll be standing right in front of you.

"A leader has the vision and conviction that a dream can be achieved. He inspires the power and energy to get it done". Ralph Nader believed that. Ed Miliband believes it too.

Photo: Getty
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Leader: Corbyn’s second act

Left-wing populism is not enough – Labour must provide a real alternative.

Since Jeremy Corbyn first stood for the Labour leadership he has been fortunate in his opponents. His rivals for leader ran lacklustre campaigns in 2015 and failed to inspire members and activists who longed to escape the tortured triangulations of the Ed Miliband era. Later, at the 2017 general election, Mr Corbyn was confronted by a dismal Conservative campaign that invited the electorate’s contempt. Theresa May’s complacency – as well as Mr Corbyn’s dynamic campaign –has helped propel the Labour leader to a position from which he could become prime minister.

With greater power, however, comes greater responsibility. Mr Corbyn’s opponents have for too long preferred to insult him or interrogate his past rather than to scrutinise his policies. They have played the man not the ball. Now, as he is a contender for power rather than merely a serial protester, Mr Corbyn’s programme will be more rigorously assessed, as it should be. Over the months ahead, he faces the political equivalent of the “difficult second album”. 

Labour’s most electorally successful – and expensive – election policy was its pledge to abolish university tuition fees. Young voters were not only attracted by this promise but also by Mr Corbyn’s vow, in an interview with the free music paper NME, to “deal with” the issue of graduate debt. The Labour leader has since been accused of a betrayal after clarifying that the phrase “to deal with” did not amount to a “commitment” to wipe out student debt. In an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr, he explained that he had been “unaware of the size of it [graduate debt] at the time”. (The cost of clearing all outstanding student debt is estimated at £100bn.)

In fairness to Mr Corbyn, Labour’s manifesto said nothing on the subject of existing student debt (perhaps it should have) and his language in the NME interview was ambiguous. “I’m looking at ways that we could reduce that [graduate debt], ameliorate that, lengthen the period of paying it off,” he said. There is no comparison with the Liberal Democrats, who explicitly vowed not to raise tuition fees before trebling them to £9,000 after entering coalition with the Conservatives in 2010. Yet the confusion demonstrates why Mr Corbyn must be more precise in his policy formulations. In a hyperactive media age, a single stray sentence will be seized upon.

At the general election, Labour also thrived by attracting the support of many of those who voted to remain in the European Union (enjoying a 28-point lead over the Conservatives among this group). Here, again, ambiguity served a purpose. Mr Corbyn has since been charged with a second betrayal by opposing continued UK membership of the single market. On this, there should be no surprise. Mr Corbyn is an ardent Eurosceptic: he voted against the single market’s creation in 1986 and, from the back benches, he continually opposed further European integration.

However, his position on the single market puts him into conflict with prominent Labour politicians, such as Chuka Umunna and the Welsh First Minister, Carwyn Jones, as well as the party membership (66 per cent of whom support single market membership) and, increasingly, public opinion. As the economic costs of Brexit become clearer (the UK is now the slowest-growing G7 country), voters are less willing to support a disruptive exit. Nor should they. 

The worse that Britain fares in the Brexit negotiations (the early signs are not promising), the greater the desire for an alternative will be. As a reinvigorated opposition, it falls to the Labour Party to provide it. Left-wing populism is not enough. 

The glory game

In an ideal world, the role of sport should be to entertain, inspire and uplift. Seldom does a sporting contest achieve all three. But the women’s cricket World Cup final, on 23 July at Lord’s, did just that. In a thrilling match, England overcame India by nine runs to lift the trophy. Few of the 26,500 spectators present will forget the match. For this may well have been the moment that women’s cricket (which has for so long existed in the shadow of the men’s game) finally broke through.

England have twice before hosted women’s World Cups. In 1973 matches were played at small club grounds. Twenty years later, when England won the final at Lord’s, the ground was nearly empty, the players wore skirts and women were banned from the members’ pavilion. This time, the players were professionals, every ticket was sold, and the match was shown live around the world. At the end, girls and boys pressed against the advertising hoardings in an attempt to get their heroes’ autographs. Heather Knight, Anya Shrubsole, Sarah Taylor, Tammy Beaumont, and the rest of the team: women, role models, world champions. 

This article first appeared in the 27 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Summer double issue