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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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.