Aides in the office of the leader of the opposition have a definite spring in their step. The Labour Party has a double-digit lead in the polls, having gained more than 800 council seats and 30 councils in the local elections. Ed Miliband is now less unpopular than David Cameron, according to the latest polls, and his positions on austerity and phone-hacking have been vindicated by events, dear boy, events.
So, where are the Ed-ites? Where are the cheerleaders for Miliband in the party, in parliament, in the press? As even his closest advisers reluctantly acknowledge, he continues to lack outriders.
The ideal outrider for the Labour leader, of course, would be his big brother, David. The elder Miliband, however, continues to rule out a return to the shadow cabinet, saying he prefers life “on the front line, not the front bench”. It is an odd position. Why not do both?
Then again, if, as James Macintyre and I reported in our 2011 biography of the younger Miliband, David hasn’t fully forgiven Ed for daring to stand against him for the Labour leadership, the former’s decision to stay on the back benches makes some sense.
But blood relations notwithstanding, the wider point still applies. Ed lacks loyalists, people who would die in a ditch for him. Consider the Labour high command’s reaction to the serialisation of our biography in the Mail on Sunday last June. It was left to Charles Falconer, the former lord chancellor, card-carrying Blairite (and former flatmate of the ex-prime minister!) and high-profile supporter of David Miliband’s leadership bid, to take to the airwaves in defence of the Labour leader.
Alone in the dark
Falconer is a serious political figure and a strong media performer but he can’t, by any stretch of the imagination, be considered an Ed-ite. So where were the Ed-ites? Where was the Labour front bench?
“The responsibility lies with the shadow cabinet,” a former Labour cabinet minister told me at the time. “If I were Ed, my eyes would be swivelling to Douglas Alexander, Yvette Cooper and Caroline Flint. Why haven’t they come out to defend him?”
Little has changed over the past year. Despite the abolition of shadow cabinet elections, just eight out of the 24 MPs in Miliband’s current shadow cabinet gave him their first preference in the party leadership election in 2010. None of the big jobs – deputy leader, shadow chancellor, home affairs, foreign affairs, health, education – is held by an Ed-ite.
What about the party’s elder statesmen? The younger Miliband’s “big beasts” are, basically, Neil Kinnock and Roy Hattersley, both of whom are eloquent, passionate and principled politicians but are also indelibly associated in voters’ minds with the 1992 election defeat.
Most members of the last Labour cabinet, after all, threw their weight behind the elder, not the younger, Miliband, including Alistair Darling, Jack Straw, Tessa Jowell, Alan Johnson and Andrew Adonis (who has just been appointed by the Labour leader as an adviser on industrial strategy). Just four members of Gordon Brown’s cabinet backed Ed over David: Peter Hain, Hilary Benn, John Denham and Sadiq Khan. Two years on, Denham and Hain have quit the shadow cabinet, while Benn and Khan are said to be “brassed off” at their leader’s failure to empower or promote them.
Aides of the Labour leader like to draw an analogy with Margaret Thatcher’s spell in opposition in the late 1970s: an inexperienced, underrated leader trying to smash the political and economic consensus and take her party back to government in the space of a single term.
But if Miliband wants to be Thatcher, where is his Keith Joseph? His Airey Neave? Which think tanks can he call on for ideological support? The Tory leader had Ralph Harris’s Institute of Economic Affairs, Madsen Pirie’s Adam Smith Institute and, most important of all, Alfred Sherman’s Centre for Policy Studies.
It is not as if the Labour leader is unaware of this particular, and pressing, problem. Miliband has been heard wistfully telling friends: “I guess I am my own outrider.”
A close ally of his offers the following defence: “The challenge we had from the start was keeping everyone together, because we’d won by such a small margin. It would have been inappropriate to try to create a vanguard within the party,” he says.
Peace of the graveyard
Miliband sees himself as a unifier, as a leader who transcends factions, gangs and groupuscules. “You could say that Ed is ‘faction-blind’,” says an irritated shadow cabinet minister. He doesn’t mean it as a compliment. In politics as in the playground, factions matter.
There is a reason why Thatcher had her Thatcherites, Blair had his Blairites and Cameron has his Cameroons. That John Major could never really call on “Majorites” for support may help explain his failure to silence his army of backbench rebels. Even Brown had his Brownites; in his darkest days in Downing Street, he could always call on the two Eds to go out to bat for him.
Miliband was wise to promote Rachel Reeves and Chuka Umunna to the shadow cabinet in October: they are young, talented MPs who backed him for leader in 2010 and understand his desire for a “new settlement”. But he needs to go much further and faster. In his next big reshuffle, he should consider bringing even more of the newbies who backed him, such as Chi Onwurah, Emma Reynolds and Lisa Nandy, into the shadow cabinet.
Remember, in politics, there is no point having political capital if you don’t spend it. “You can have peace in the party by staying quiet and avoiding confrontation,” says a frustrated front-bench ally of the Labour leader. “But that’s the peace of the graveyard. Ed needs to assert his leadership and promote his own people even if it upsets others in the party.” He adds: “Now is the time to be bold and strike out.”
Miliband can’t afford to relax. Politics works in cycles and he will come under sustained fire again soon enough. He can’t be his own outrider for too much longer.
Mehdi Hasan is co-author of “Ed: the Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader” (Biteback, £9.99)