Show Hide image

Mehdi Hasan: Five questions that trouble Ed Miliband’s many disillusioned supporters

The questions the Labour leader can’t answer.

Photo: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Forget the New Labour icons Tony Blair and Alan Milburn. Ignore the business bosses Stuart Rose and Stefano Pessina. If Ed Miliband isn’t prime minister after the general election in May, he has only one person to blame: himself.

The Labour leader, contrary to the lazy conventional wisdom, has the potential to be a good, even great, premier. He has, his friends say, a “Thatcher-esque” ambition to transform the British political and economic scene and has proved to be one of the most influential leaders of the opposition in living memory, forcing issues such as phone-hacking, the cost of living and Palestinian statehood on to the political agenda. If he wins on 7 May, he will walk through the door of No 10 with more high-level government experience – as a former cabinet minister and an ex-Treasury adviser – than Tony Blair and David Cameron combined when they entered Downing Street.

Yet it isn’t just his opponents who question whether Miliband will become prime minister. A growing number of his supporters do, too. Such is the right-wing reflex of much of our press that the only critique of the Labour leader which gets a hearing these days comes from either business bosses or Blairite ultras. There are, however, many centre-left MPs, peers and activists who backed Miliband’s insurgent leadership candidacy in the summer of 2010 but who now have their own issues with the Labour leader and his failures. They gather in the pubs and tearooms of Westminster to moan and groan about their man, more in sorrow than in anger.

Consider the following five questions that disillusioned “Ed-ites” often obsess over – and that Miliband has yet to address, in public or in private. First, why has a former television researcher – yes, Miliband worked briefly on Channel 4’s A Week in Politics in the early 1990s – failed to recognise how abjectly awful his performances on TV have been since 2010? Why hasn’t he taken urgent steps to improve them? In 2011 David Cameron hired Craig Oliver, a former editor of the BBC’s News at Ten, to be his director of communications. Miliband preferred to appoint three veteran lobby correspondents with zero experience in television, waiting until as late as September 2014 to recruit Matthew Laza, a former producer for the BBC of The One Show, to serve as his head of broadcasting.

Second, how did this son of Holocaust survivors allow his family’s compelling story to be ignored so easily, despite high-profile attacks from the Daily Mail and the pro-Israeli actress Maureen Lipman (who announced that she would be abandoning Labour until it was “led by mensches” – the Yiddish word for people of integrity)? How many are aware that Miliband publicly challenged a Sudanese diplomat over his “disgusting” comparison of efforts to fight climate change with the Holocaust in 2009? A video of him receiving a standing ovation from UN delegates sits unwatched on an obscure BBC News web page and unused by Labour Party spinners. (Google “‘Don’t wreck conference’ pleas Miliband [sic]” if you have three minutes to spare.)

Third, why is a former climate-change secretary who launched a “clean coal” policy, who debated against the climate sceptic Nigel Lawson and helped – in the words of the science writer Fred Pearce – “save” the Copenhagen summit in 2009 shedding voters to a resurgent Green Party? Forget “Red Ed”; whatever happened to “Green Ed”?

Fourth, why isn’t Miliband – whom the Daily Telegraph described in 2009 as one of the “saints” of the parliamentary expenses scandal – leading the assault on our sclerotic political establishment? Why has he ceded this fertile terrain to a former City trader named Nigel Farage, who once boasted he’d claimed up to £2m in expenses and allowances from the European Parliament?

Fifth, why has one of today’s few front-line Labour politicians who opposed the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq kept so quiet about his anti-war record? Why hasn’t he led the charge against the inexcusable delay in the publication of the Chilcot report? Labour is haemorrhaging voters to a range of anti-Iraq-war parties, from the Greens and the SNP to the Lib Dems. And yet, speaking at Prime Minister’s Questions on 21 January, Miliband remarked, almost as an aside, “Frankly, my views on the Iraq war are well known.” Sorry, Ed, they aren’t.

The public doesn’t have a clue that in early 2003 he phoned Gordon Brown – as I revealed on these pages in 2010 – from the US, where he was on a sabbatical at Harvard, to urge the then chancellor to resist Tony Blair’s march to war. (A former Downing Street aide told me how Brown “took Ed’s phone call very seriously but, ultimately, other views prevailed”.)

Yet on Iraq, as on MPs’ expenses, Miliband has taken a vow of silence. Why? To avoid, I’m told, embarrassing or provoking front-bench colleagues who did abuse their expenses and did cheerlead for the war in Iraq – despite Labour’s private polling showing how Miliband’s record on these issues is of huge appeal to floating voters. “The price of unity has been radicalism,” a friend of the Labour leader says. Another one told me that he “has to stop rewarding bad behaviour . . . He accommodates too much to others and isn’t forceful enough.”

Miliband is said privately to declaim that he is “strategically bold but tactically cautious”. The inescapable problem for this wannabe prime minister is that, day after day, caution wins out. The Labour leader cannot afford to be his own worst enemy, as he approaches the closest general election in a generation. Cravenness doesn’t win political battles. Courage does.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the NS and the political director of the Huffington Post UK, where this column is crossposted

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Assad vs Isis

Getty
Show Hide image

Inside the progressive alliance that beat Zac Goldsmith in Richmond

Frantic phone calls, hundreds of volunteers, and Labour MPs constrained by their party. 

Politics for a progressive has been gloomy for a long time. On Thursday, in Richmond Park of all places, there was a ray of light. Progressive parties (at least some of them) and ordinary voters combined to beat Ukip, the Tories and their "hard Brexit, soft racist" candidate.

It didn’t happen by accident. Let's be clear, the Liberal Democrats do by-elections really well. Their activists flood in, and good luck to them. But Richmond Park was too big a mountain for even their focused efforts. No, the narrow win was also down to the fast growing idea of a progressive alliance. 

The progressive alliance is both a defensive and offensive move. It recognises the tactical weakness of progressives under first past the post – a system the Tories and their press know how to game. With progressive forces spilt between Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, the Women’s Equality Party and more – there is no choice but to co-operate, bring in proportional representation and then a whole new political world begins.

This move opens up the wider strategy – to end the domination of the City, and right-wing newspapers like the Mail, so Britain can have a real debate and make real choices about what sort of economy and society it wants. A pipedream? Well, maybe. But last night the fuse was lit in Richmond Park. The progressive alliance can work.

Months before the by-election, the pressure group for a progressive alliance that I chair, Compass, the Greens, and some Labour, Liberal Democrat and SNP MPs and activists, began considering this. The alternative after Brexit was staring into the void.

Then the Tory MP Zac Goldsmith stepped down over Heathrow. To be fair, he had pledged to do this, and we should have been better prepared. In the event, urgent behind-the-scenes calls were made between the Greens and the Liberal Democrats. Compass acted as the safe house. The Greens, wonderfully, clung onto democracy – the local party had to decide. And they decided to stand up for a new politics. Andree Frieze would have been the Green candidate, and enjoyed her moment in the autumn sun. She and her party turned it down for a greater good. So did the Women’s Equality Party.

Meanwhile, what about Labour? Last time, they came a distant third. Again the phones were hit and meetings held. There was growing support not to stand. But what would they get back from the Liberal Democrats, and what did the rules say about not standing? It was getting close to the wire. I spent an hour after midnight, in the freezing cold of Aberdeen, on the phone to a sympathetic Labour MP trying to work out what the party rule book said before the selection meeting.

At the meeting, I am told, a move was made from the floor not to select. The London regional official ruled it out of order and said a candidate would be imposed if they didn’t select. Some members walked out at this point. Where was the new kinder, gentler politics? Where was membership democracy? Fast forward to last night, and the Labour candidate got less votes than the party has members.

The idea of a progressive alliance in Richmond was then cemented in a draughty church hall on the first Tuesday of the campaign – the Unitarian Church of course. Within 48 hours notice, 200 local activist of all parties and none had come together to hear the case for a progressive alliance. Both the Greens and Compass produced literature to make the case for voting for the best-placed progressive candidate. The Liberal Democrats wove their by-election magic. And together we won.

It’s a small victory – but it shows what is possible. Labour is going to have to think very hard whether it wants to stay outside of this, when so many MPs and members see it as common sense. The lurch to the right has to be stopped – a progressive alliance, in which Labour is the biggest tent in the campsite, is the only hope.

In the New Year, the Progressive Alliance will be officially launched with a steering committee, website and activists tool-kit. There will also be a trained by-election hit squad, manifestos of ideas and alliances build locally and across civil society.

There are lots of problems that lie ahead - Labour tribalism, the 52 per cent versus the 48 per cent, Scottish independence and the rest. But there were lots of problems in Richmond Park, and we overcame them. And you know, working together felt good – it felt like the future. The Tories, Ukip and Arron Banks want a different future – a regressive alliance. We have to do better than them. On Thursday, we showed we could.

Could the progressive alliance be the start of the new politics we have all hoped for?

Neal Lawson is the Chair of Compass, the pressure group for the progressive alliance.

Neal Lawson is chair of the pressure group Compass, which brings together progressives from all parties and none. His views on internal Labour matters are personal ones.