This is the time of year when Ed Miliband gets a pasting from the polls and the media. It has happened regularly since he became Labour leader in 2010. And virtually all the comments, criticisms, and attacks involve the crucial and dangerously undermining issue of leadership authority. Is Miliband up to it? Is he really leading the party? Is he a credible future prime minister? Where are the policies? Where is the leadership? His – fewer – defenders basically stress the opposite – that he is a good leader because he absorbs the criticism and is in fact calm, ruthless, and determined, or else that it doesn’t matter if the leader is less popular than the party, the party will win anyway.
This cacophony confuses and is drowning out two related but very separate issues: the question of the elaboration of policies and the party’s 'voice' on the one hand, and the question of Miliband’s leadership of the party and eventually of the country on the other. For a hundred years the party has been organised around the former – policies, policy programmes, and manifestos – its very existence is based around these; it knows nothing, however, about the latter – the role of leadership within a centre-left party.
Let’s look at them separately. First, policies. The current lack of policies is no accident. What the party, backed, indeed led, by the leadership has been doing in this area is nothing short of a fundamental ideological revision. For the last two years, the Policy Review has been a review of social theory and ideas, not of policy; and the input of the responsible capitalism, relational state, Blue Labour and One Nation thinkers in the party has seen a dramatic attempt to take the party away from New Labour, even away from Clement Attlee’s Labour, towards, or back to, an earlier tradition of localism, mutualism, community, self-help, solidarity, and self-reliance. And the rhetorical efforts of the Policy Review chair, Jon Cruddas, have been to take this emerging narrative and modernise it.
The move, over the next two years to a real policy review will be the test of whether One Nation is underpinned by a theory of power – this will determine whether this newly-fashioned craft, built from many traditional materials, will fly. But the critics will be confounded as the barrage of new policies emerges over the coming months. The question is not whether there will be policies, but whether the policies, based upon One Nation, will be bold, far-reaching, and inspirational enough for the party to deserve to be carried back to power and government.
This brings us to the other issue, Miliband’s personal presence and leadership. The party – rightly or wrongly - has always had theories of power and the policies that flow from them, theories of how capitalism works and what should be done about it to create the good society. What it has never had, and today needs more than ever in a society with unrelenting focus on the issue, is a theory of leadership itself. For the Conservative Party, a theory of leadership is hard-wired into the DNA. Leadership is a give and there are two desirable types: the grandee and the executive manager. Cameron is a hybrid of the two. Ironically, Margaret Thatcher was not an ideal-type Tory leader at all, but a happy accident that the Tories ran with, most of the time in a state of complete bemusement.
On the left though, there is a serious problem. In this age of perpetual media scrutiny, spin, and leadership image, the UK left has no idea what leadership is. In fact, it does not really believe it exists, or should exist. If Miliband’s personal popularity falters in the polls there is a storm of criticism, much of it little more sophisticated than the tabloid press’s attacks: he should have been here in the summer; where was he, in France somewhere? And where are those policies? The Tories grabbed all the headlines (Did they? What headlines?). François Hollande decided not to go on holiday this year and his ratings remain catastrophic; Angela Merkel did and hers are stratospheric. As the adage says, be careful what you wish for.
The left needs to ask itself a whole series of questions about leaders and leadership. What is the nature of leadership for the left today? What is its place in the traditions of the British left? In what way should the leader personify the party in the public sphere? What is the relationship of the leader to the party’s narrative or narratives? What is the role and place of leadership competition in a modern centre-left party? Are there leadership archetypes in the leftist imagination (and are they all male?). Practically, what should the leader of a major political party be doing in the silly season when the media can’t find solid political stories to talk about?
Miliband did extremely well at the 2012 conference – even the media agreed. But how should he talk to the party, the media, and the public between conferences? As well as developing the party’s ideas, expressing its deeply-held beliefs, and bringing forward a raft of policies for the next election, the party should – before collapsing once again into Miliband bashing - pay more attention to this historical and ideological blind-spot impeding its view of the world and of politics: what constitutes leadership in the left’s imagination and what does a modern Labour Party expect from its leader?