One of Ed Miliband’s earliest and most enthusiastic supporters in the parliamentary Labour party last year told me: “Ed doesn’t pick a fight in an empty room.”
The context was criticism I had made of the way reform of Labour’s relations with trade unions was being handled. My suggestion was that the leader had ignored an issue, wanting it to go away and then been bounced into something big and potentially ruinous at quite the wrong point in the electoral cycle. He would end up meandering across a minefield where there was no credit with most voters and ample opportunity to lose a limb. As it turns out (and as I wrote last week) the Labour leader has navigated his way across rather niftily.
The defence at the time was that Miliband didn’t want to provoke the unions gratuitously. He had been explicit from the start in ruling out any gesture to define himself through confected conflict with the left. But when crisis struck and managing the relationship became a point of political urgency, he acted swiftly and without inhibition.
This, the stalwart Ed defender put it to me, was characteristic of the way he does politics. He has strong views on certain things. He has the capacity to act – or speak – boldly, but he prefers to wait and only intervene in a fight when it obviously needs fighting. One example cited to support this interpretation was Miliband's decision, when the phone-hacking scandal erupted, to configure Labour’s response as a war against Rupert Murdoch. Similarly, he chose to fight back hard against the Daily Mail over articles attacking his late father on bogus and spiteful allegations of national disloyalty. It is worth noting, too, that the fight Miliband picked last autumn against the big six energy companies was begun only after meticulous political stress-testing and war-gaming.
It is no longer plausible to claim, as Miliband’s critics once liked to do, that he is paralysed with caution. Plainly, he can take risks. Nor is it right to say that his gambles are reckless. They are made with assiduous calculation. That doesn’t prove that the calculations are the right ones and there is no shortage of people in Westminster ready to say that Miliband has misjudged all manner of critical choices. But there are also people who decided in 2010 that he was ridiculous and still scour each move he makes for evidence to sustain that belief. In reality, it is getting harder to deny that Miliband can be rather good at politics when he really needs to be.
I thought of the empty room this weekend when I saw Miliband’s comments on climate change. There had been some chatter for a while in Labour circles about his relative silence on the subject. He had been the responsible Secretary of State after all; it was supposed to be a topic close to his heart. Surely in all his speeches on remaking Britain’s economy and society, there was room for more than a half-paragraph on an issue of epoch-defining urgency?
But climate change, much to the chagrin of the activists whose lives are consumed by the struggle, is a niche concern for most voters. Had Miliband made it a defining matter last year, or the year before, he would have won plaudits from people who are probably voting for him anyway and been ignored by everyone else. His critics would have sneered that he was ducking the big economic issues to fiddle around in comfort-zone corner.
In the last week, that has changed. The floods have swept the climate question into the headlines. Tory peers are making common cause with Ukip at the Tea Party end of unscientific conjecture. They are an embarrassment to David Cameron, who once wore green sensibility as the emblem of his ambition to “modernise” his party. The fight was going off in the room and that’s when Miliband waded in. It is not the most significant political action of recent weeks. It will not, I expect, have an impact on opinion polls. But it does serve as a reminder that the Labour leader picks his moments carefully, which isn’t at all the same thing as being too careful.