Ed Miliband speaks at the Scottish Labour conference on March 21, 2014 in Perth. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Miliband's new leadership pitch is a gamble worth taking

By framing himself as a man of "principle", not one for photo-ops, the Labour leader is seeking to ensure the election is fought on his terms. 

For months, Ed Miliband has been under ferocious personal attack from the media. Mocked for his appearance in photos and derided as "weird", he has often struggled to be heard above the gale of ridicule. For the Tories, it is Miliband's "weakness" (reflected in his poor personal ratings), above all else, that gives them hope they can achieve victory next May. 

But in his speech today, regarded by Labour strategists as one of the most important he has ever made, Miliband hit the reset button. In a partial admission of defeat, he conceded that David Cameron was better at photo opportunities than him - "I haven't matched him on that" - and that "it's not where my talents lie" (adding, in a nice touch of self-deprecation, "as you may have noticed").

"David Cameron is a very sophisticated and successful exponent of an image-based politics," he said. "He made his name as leader of the opposition for some fantastic photos, like hanging out with huskies in the Arctic Circle. 

"Even my biggest supporters would say I haven't matched him on that. It is not what I care most about. And it's not where my talents lie - as you may have noticed."

He even went as far as to declare: "If you want a politician who thinks that a good photo is the most important thing, then don't vote for me". Perhaps no leader of the opposition has ever been so frank. That Miliband and his team decided this speech was necessary is a tacit acknowledgment of how poor his position is on many fronts. But in an attempt to turn this apparent weakness into a strength, he urged voters to raise their sights above the level of photo opportunities and publicity stunts, presenting himself as a man with "big ideas", "a sense of principle" and "decency and empathy". With these words, Miliband is seeking to construct an alternative test of leadership to that set by his foes. One shadow cabinet minister described it to me as a "jiu-jitsu move", turning Cameron's apparent strength (his image) against him. 

Miliband's new strategy is not without risk. Some voters may find his tone patronising - "we'll judge you on our terms, not yours" - while others may dismiss it as a desperate bid for sympathy. But it is undoubtedly a gamble worth taking (if one that some in Labour believe should have been taken adopted earlier). One of the few measures on which Miliband has consistently outpolled Cameron is "understanding people's lives", his speech was an attempt to make this, rather than more trivial considerations, the ultimate test for a would-be prime minister.

After years of rising alienation with politics, Miliband's wager is that the country is ready for a more principled and serious figure than Cameron (a man of whom even Conservatives ask "what does he actually believe?"). Gordon Brown made a similar appeal in the final leaders' TV debate, declaring "If it is all about style and PR, count me out. If it’s about the big decisions, if it’s about judgement, it’s about delivering a better future for this country, I’m your man." It did him little good, but by that stage perhaps nothing could.

Ahead of next May, Miliband's decision to admit to his weaknesses in advance is a shrewd insurance policy. As the general election draws closer, the press and the Tories will subject to him ever harsher scrutiny and seize every opportunity to make him look foolish. With this speech, Miliband has declared in advance: "I'm not playing that game". 

Instead, he said: "The leadership you need and the leadership you this country need is one that has big ideas to change things, with the sense of principle needed to change things, with the sense of principle needed to stick to those beliefs and ideas even when it is hard, and with the decency and empathy to reach out to people from all backgrounds, all walks of life. For me, those qualities are the gold standard for what a modern leader should offer."

He added, to avoid any hostages to fortune, "I will sometimes fall short of that gold standard." Having set himself up as a figure of principle, Miliband will need to ensure that he does so as rarely as possible. As another Labour leader once put it, he will need to be "whiter than white" if decency is truly to triumph.

Having framed the election as a battle of ideas, he will also need to ensure that he has the best ones. The Tories' riposte to this speech will be that the problem isn't that Miliband is bad at photos ("although he is"), but that he has the wrong policies, that he'd "crash" the economy again. It is that charge that Miliband will now need to definitively rebut in the nine months that remain. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Is Scottish Labour on the way back, or heading for civil war?

There are signs of life, but also recriminations.

The extraordinary rise of the Scottish Tories and the collapse in SNP seat numbers grabbed most of the headlines in the recent general election. Less remarked on was the sudden, unexpected exhalation of air that came from what was thought to be the corpse of Scottish Labour.

In 2015, Labour lost 40 of its 41 Scottish seats as the SNP rocketed from six to 56, was wiped out in its Glaswegian heartlands, and looked to have ceded its place as the choice of centre-left voters – perhaps permanently – to the Nationalists. But while the electorate’s convulsion in June against the SNP’s insistence on a second independence referendum most benefited Ruth Davidson, it also served to reanimate Labour.

The six seats grabbed back (making a total of seven) included three in the West of Scotland, proving that the Nat stranglehold on Labour’s territory was not quite as secure as it had seemed. There is, it appears, life in the old dog yet.

Not only that, but the surprise success of Jeremy Corbyn across the UK has stiffened Labour’s spine when it comes to insisting that it, and not the SNP, is the rightful home of Scotland’s socialists.

Corbyn was largely kept south of the border during the election campaign – Kezia Dugdale, the leader at Holyrood, had supported Owen Smith’s leadership challenge. But in August, Corbyn will embark on a five-day tour of marginal SNP constituencies that Labour could potentially take back at the next election. The party has set a target of reclaiming 18 Scottish seats as part of the 64 it needs across Britain to win a majority at Westminster. The trip will focus on traditional areas such as Glasgow and Lanarkshire, where tiny swings would return seats to the People’s Party. Dugdale is no doubt hoping for some reflected glory.

Corbyn will present himself as the authentically left-wing choice, a leader who will increase public spending and invest in public services compared to the austerity of the Tories and the timidity of the SNP. “Labour remains on an election footing as a government-in-waiting, ready to end failed austerity and ensure that Scotland has the resources it needs to provide the public services its people deserve,” he said. “Unlike the SNP and the Tories, Labour will transform our economy through investment, insisting that the true wealth creators - that means all of us – benefit from it.”

The SNP has benefited in recent years from the feeling among many north of the border that Labour and the Tories were committed to differing shades of a similar economic programme, that was starving public services of cash and that paid little attention to Scottish desires or needs. But as the Nats’ spell in government in Edinburgh has worn on, first under Alex Salmond and now Nicola Sturgeon, with little being done to tackle the nation’s social problems, patience has started to run out.

Dugdale said yesterday that she “looked forward to joining Jeremy in August as we take our message to the people of Scotland”. That’s not a sentiment we would have heard from her before June. But it does raise the future spectacle of Davidson’s Tories battling for the centre and centre-right vote and Labour gunning for the left. The SNP, which has tried to be all things to all people, will have to make a choice – boasting that it is “Scotland’s Party” is unlikely to be enough.

The 20th anniversary of the referendum that delivered the Scottish Parliament is almost upon us. Then, Scottish Labour provided the UK and the Westminster government with figures of the stature of Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Donald Dewar and George Robertson. That was a long time ago, and the decline in quality of Labour’s representatives both in London and Edinburgh since has been marked. The SNP’s decade of success has attracted much of the brightest new talent through its doors. Young Scots still seem to be set on the idea of independence. Labour has a credibility problem that won’t be easily shaken off.

But still, the body has twitched – perhaps it’s even sitting up. Is Scottish Labour on the way back? If so, is that down to the SNP’s declining popularity or to Corbyn’s appeal? And could Dugdale be a convincing frontwoman for a genuinely left-wing agenda?

There may be trouble ahead. Yesterday, the Scottish Labour Campaign for Socialism – whose convener, Neil Findlay MSP, ran Corbyn’s leadership campaign in Scotland – accused Dugdale of “holding Corbyn back” in June. A spokesperson for the group said: “While it’s great we won some seats back, it’s clear that the campaign here failed to deliver. While elsewhere we've seen people being enthused by ‘for the many, not the few’ we concentrated on the dispiriting visionless ‘send Nicola a message’ – and paid a price for that, coming third in votes and seats for the first time in a century. In Scotland we looked more like [former Scottish leader] Jim Murphy’s Labour Party than Jeremy Corbyn’s – and that isn’t a good look.”

While the group insists this isn’t intended as a challenge to Dugdale, that might change if Corbyn receives a rapturous reception in August. We’ll learn then whether Scotland is falling for the high-tax, high-spending pitch that seems to be working so well elsewhere, and whether Scottish Labour has jerked back to life only to find itself staring down the barrel of a civil war.

Chris Deerin is the New Statesman's contributing editor (Scotland).