Ed Miliband in Manchester last week to meet council leaders. Photo: Nigel Roddis/Getty
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Ed Miliband’s problem is not policy but tone – and increasingly he seems trapped

Jason Cowley on the struggles and woes of the Labour leader.

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Early one morning in September 2012 I visited Ed Miliband at home in north London. He had just returned from holiday in Greece and this was to be his first interview of the new political season, his big re-entry. He remembers the interview as the one in which he was photographed “sitting in the bushes”. I remember it as the occasion on which he showcased his new Big Idea – “predistribution”, a concept adapted from the Yale political scientist Jacob Hacker.

Having commendably held his party together when many had predicted it would split into warring factions, Miliband had grand plans. His mission was to change the rules of capitalism and to direct markets for the common good. Inequality was the scourge of our age, he told me. People felt the system was rigged against them. But the financial crisis and the Great Recession had created a social-democratic moment.

“For me it’s a centre-left moment because people think there’s something unfair and unjust about our society. You’ve got to bring the vested interest to heel; you’ve got to change the way the economy works. That’s our opportunity.” Not once did he mention Ukip or even countenance the possibility that a right-wing populist insurgency would erupt into the space that progressive politics hoped to occupy.

Miliband has a deterministic, quasi-Marxist analysis of our present ills. The Ukip insurgency, Scottish nationalism, the hollowing out of political parties, Islamist radicalisation, the loathing and distrust of elites: all are manifestations of a failed economic model.

He is a politician of unusual self-confidence. Considering his appalling approval ratings and the lack of enthusiasm many of his MPs have for him, he has exceptional resilience. It’s as if he is driven by a sense of manifest destiny, always dangerous in a politician. But what if he is wrong? What if the majority of people do not share his world-view? What if they want something more prosaic: economic competence, prosperity for themselves and their children, social justice and their government to protect them against the havoc being wreaked by globalisation? Miliband would argue that this is what he is offering through “responsible capitalism”. Yet there exists a gulf between the radicalism of his rhetoric and the low-toned incrementalism of his policies.

From the beginning Labour was always an uneasy coalition of the organised working class and the Fabian or Hampstead intellectual. Later it also became the party of public-sector workers, social liberals and dispossessed minorities. Miliband is very much an old-style Hampstead socialist. He doesn’t really understand the lower middle class or material aspiration. He doesn’t understand Essex Man or Woman. Politics for him must seem at times like an extended PPE seminar: elevated talk about political economy and the good society.

At present, he and Labour seem trapped. His MPs sense it and the polls reflect it. Ukip is attracting support in the party’s old working-class northern English heartlands and winning converts in key Home Counties swing seats that Labour would once have hoped to win. In Scotland the SNP has become the natural party of government.

In a recent interview, Alex Salmond was scathing about Miliband, describing him as “more unelectable” than Michael Foot. He had none of “Foot’s wonderful qualities or intelligence. He’s more unelectable than Neil Kinnock was; and Kinnock had considerable powers of oratory, and didn’t lack political courage.” One would expect Salmond to be dismissive of a Labour leader but it is worrying for the party that even allies now speak similarly of him and his failings.

Miliband is losing the support of the left (to the SNP, to the Greens) without having formed a broader coalition of a kind that defined the early Blair-Brown years. Most damaging, I think, is that he seldom seems optimistic about the country he wishes to lead. Miliband speaks too often of struggle and failure, of people as victims – and it’s true that life is difficult for many. But a nation also wants to feel good about itself and to know in which direction it is moving. Reflecting many years afterwards on Labour’s landslide victory in 1945, Clement Attlee said: “We were looking towards the future. The Tories were looking towards the past.”

Labour wins well when its leader seems most in tune with the times and can speak for and to the people about who they are and what they want to be in the near future: Attlee in 1945, Wilson in 1966, Blair in 1997.

Miliband does not have a compelling personal story to tell the electorate, as Thatcher did about her remarkable journey from the grocer’s shop in Grantham and the values that sustained her along the way or Alan Johnson does about his rise from an impoverished childhood in west London. I went to Oxford to study PPE, worked for Gordon Brown, became a cabinet minister and then leader of the party does not quite do it. None of this would matter were Miliband in manner and approach not so much the product of this narrow background.

He understands and has analysed astutely capitalism’s destructive potential but not perhaps its resilience and ability to absorb shocks. As Lenin said, there are no “absolutely hopeless situations” for capitalism, as we are again discovering. There are deep problems for Labour and for all social-democratic parties that transcend any one leader. But as we enter an unstable era of multiparty politics, the fragmentation of the British state and intensifying Euroscepticism, Miliband’s chief problem is not policy but tone. He needs to find a distinctive voice to articulate people’s feelings about the present moment. And he might have to accept before long – or the electorate will force him to – that Europe’s social-democratic moment, if it ever existed, is fading into the past. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

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

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