Miliband’s enemies don’t know what to make of him – the trouble is, neither do his friends

Part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote.

The Conservative Party is unsure whether Ed Miliband is ridiculous or dangerous. Tory optimists think the Labour leader’s glamourless style breaches some unwritten prime ministerial admissions code, meaning voters will bar his entry to No 10. They expect the opposition’s lead in opinion polls to vanish once the nation seriously contemplates placing a fragile economy in Ed’s buttery fingers.

Conservative pessimists have more respect. They know that belittling Miliband’s manner doesn’t alter the electoral maths that make him the likeliest bet to be prime minister after 2015. If Labour hangs on to disgruntled Lib Dems, and angry Tories continue to side with Ukip – both plausible scenarios – crucial seats in the Midlands and northern England will be unwinnable for David Cameron. A handful of Conservatives even admit that Miliband has played a weak hand with guile, shoring up the unity of the left while the right is divided.

Tory differences over how seriously to take Miliband are inseparable from the question of how easy it will be to woo voters who are currently sojourning with Nigel Farage. Downing Street strategists expect them to come back to Cameron in droves once they realise that their dalliance risks creating a monstrous lefty prime minister. Casual Ukip supporters are supposed to grasp that the things they want – less immigration, benefit cuts, a referendum on Europe – are available only under a Conservative government. Though braced for a strong Ukip performance in the European parliamentary elections in May, senior Tories are quietly confident that the tide will then recede.

This view presumes that Farage’s supporters make rational choices based on a menu of preferred policies. Some Tories doubt it. In their constituencies, they encounter “Kamikaze Ukip” – people who are so filled with hatred of the political class and Cameron in particular that they might swallow the prospect of a Miliband-led government, which they would expect to fail promptly, if that is the price for provoking a purgative Tory crisis.

Ukip’s organisational backbone is built from former Tory activists. They see the Prime Minister as an arrogant, unprincipled toff who has wrecked the party they once loved and whose electoral punishment is a task of moral urgency. There is sure to be a drift back to the Tories in 2015 but it doesn’t take many stubborn Ukippers – perhaps as little as 6 per cent of voters – to rob the Conservatives of power. The calculation that depresses some Tory backbenchers is that the alliance of people who want Cameron out at all costs, though ideologically disparate, is bigger and more motivated than the coalition of people who want to reward him with another term in office.

If that is true, Labour can be the biggest party in the next parliament by default. Yet opposition MPs are reluctant to celebrate this bounty. There is some disbelief that the catastrophic defeat of 2010 can be overcome in a single term. There is also reluctance to credit Miliband with engineering their positional advantage. It feels unearned. A tiny victory delivered by the perverse interaction of a hard-right insurgency and an obsolescent voting system doesn’t exactly make a social-democratic renaissance.

Then there is Miliband’s public image, the source of so much Tory comfort and something that everyone in Labour knows is a problem but only a tiny number of top advisers are authorised to discuss. The shadow cabinet has had many presentations of polling data but none refers to the leader’s personal ratings.

Insiders say the arrival of Spencer Liver­more, a former Downing Street adviser to Gordon Brown who has returned as an election strategist, has brought more focus to the question of how Miliband’s candidacy might best be sold. The preference so far has been for town hall-style meetings in front of live audiences, where he performs well. It is a device that can be pitched as a break from sterile Westminster convention but it can’t replace the mass reach of TV. The discussion now is about the broadcast formats that work for Miliband – what balance to strike between the heavyweight news shows and daytime sofa slots and how to play televised leader debates. Aides insist that Miliband can confound his critics in that arena, going in as the underdog against the famously glossy Cameron and emerging as the more substantial figure.

Miliband’s team recognises that the public still needs to get to know him better. (Tory pollsters say voters have seen enough and aren’t impressed.) But part of the problem is that even Labour MPs find their boss remote. He is wedded to the Mount Sinai model of leadership – disappearing into the clouds for weeks and emerging with new positions on tablets of stone.

He successfully stamped his authority on the shadow cabinet in last autumn’s reshuffle, leaving none in doubt that he can be ruthless. Yet despite having elevated a cadre of young “Milibandite” protégés, the Labour leader still seems isolated. His party backs him because he can win, yet very few people even in the shadow cabinet really know his mind. They can’t anticipate his instincts or claim to speak on his behalf on a range of issues – welfare, education, crime, immigration, Europe. That means they must stick to a narrow script or stay silent for fear of going off-message, which in turn makes it hard for the public to get a rounded sense of what Labour is all about.

So far Miliband’s inscrutability has served him well. After three years, the Tories still don’t have the measure of him, which is why some of them think he can’t possibly win and others say he can’t lose. It is good for Miliband that his enemies don’t know what to make of him. The problem is that neither do his friends.

Ed Miliband visits Standard Life on November, 11, 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 08 January 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The God Gap

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Junior doctors’ strikes: the greatest union failure in a generation

The first wave of junior doctor contract impositions began this week. Here’s how the BMA union failed junior doctors.

In Robert Tressell’s novel, The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, the author ridicules the notion of work as a virtuous end per se:

“And when you are all dragging out a miserable existence, gasping for breath or dying for want of air, if one of your number suggests smashing a hole in the side of one of the gasometers, you will all fall upon him in the name of law and order.”

Tressell’s characters are subdued and eroded by the daily disgraces of working life; casualised labour, poor working conditions, debt and poverty.

Although the Junior Doctors’ dispute is a far cry from the Edwardian working-poor, the eruption of fervour from Junior Doctors during the dispute channelled similar overtones of dire working standards, systemic abuse, and a spiralling accrual of discontent at the notion of “noble” work as a reward in itself. 

While the days of union activity precipitating governmental collapse are long over, the BMA (British Medical Association) mandate for industrial action occurred in a favourable context that the trade union movement has not witnessed in decades. 

Not only did members vote overwhelmingly for industrial action with the confidence of a wider public, but as a representative of an ostensibly middle-class profession with an irreplaceable skillset, the BMA had the necessary cultural capital to make its case regularly in media print and TV – a privilege routinely denied to almost all other striking workers.

Even the Labour party, which displays parliamentary reluctance in supporting outright strike action, had key members of the leadership join protests in a spectacle inconceivable just a few years earlier under the leadership of “Red Ed”.

Despite these advantageous circumstances, the first wave of contract impositions began this week. The great failures of the BMA are entirely self-inflicted: its deference to conservative narratives, an overestimation of its own method, and woeful ignorance of the difference between a trade dispute and moralising conundrums.

These right-wing discourses have assumed various metamorphoses, but at their core rest charges of immorality and betrayal – to themselves, to the profession, and ultimately to the country. These narratives have been successfully deployed since as far back as the First World War to delegitimise strikes as immoral and “un-British” – something that has remarkably haunted mainstream left-wing and union politics for over 100 years.

Unfortunately, the BMA has inherited this doubt and suspicion. Tellingly, a direct missive from the state machinery that the BMA was “trying to topple the government” helped reinforce the same historic fears of betrayal and unpatriotic behaviour that somehow crossed a sentient threshold.

Often this led to abstract and cynical theorising such as whether doctors would return to work in the face of fantastical terrorist attacks, distracting the BMA from the trade dispute at hand.

In time, with much complicity from the BMA, direct action is slowly substituted for direct inaction with no real purpose and focus ever-shifting from the contract. The health service is superficially lamented as under-resourced and underfunded, yes, but certainly no serious plan or comment on how political factors and ideologies have contributed to its present condition.

There is little to be said by the BMA for how responsibility for welfare provision lay with government rather than individual doctors; virtually nothing on the role of austerity policies; and total silence on how neoliberal policies act as a system of corporate welfare, eliciting government action when in the direct interests of corporatism.

In place of safeguards demanded by the grassroots, there are instead vague quick-fixes. Indeed, there can be no protections for whistleblowers without recourse to definable and tested legal safeguards. There are limited incentives for compliance by employers because of atomised union representation and there can be no exposure of a failing system when workers are treated as passive objects requiring ever-greater regulation.

In many ways, the BMA exists as the archetypal “union for a union’s sake”, whose material and functional interest is largely self-intuitive. The preservation of the union as an entity is an end in itself.

Addressing conflict in a manner consistent with corporate and business frameworks, there remains at all times overarching emphasis on stability (“the BMA is the only union for doctors”), controlled compromise (“this is the best deal we can get”) and appeasement to “greater” interests (“think of the patients”). These are reiterated even when diametrically opposed to its own members or irrelevant to the trade dispute.

With great chutzpah, the BMA often moves from one impasse to the next, framing defeats as somehow in the interests of the membership. Channels of communication between hierarchy and members remain opaque, allowing decisions such as revocation of the democratic mandate for industrial action to be made with frightening informality.

Pointedly, although the BMA often appears to be doing nothing, the hierarchy is in fact continually defining the scope of choice available to members – silence equals facilitation and de facto acceptance of imposition. You don’t get a sense of cumulative unionism ready to inspire its members towards a swift and decisive victory.

The BMA has woefully wasted the potential for direct action. It has encouraged a passive and pessimistic malaise among its remaining membership and presided over the most spectacular failure of union representation in a generation.

Ahmed Wakas Khan is a junior doctor, freelance journalist and editorials lead at The Platform. He tweets @SireAhmed.