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10 January 2012

The questions over Miliband’s leadership that will not go away

The Labour leader will deliver a keynote speech on the economy -- but will it dispel doubts?

By Samira Shackle

Ed Miliband might have been hoping for a new start to go with the New Year. But, so far, 2012 has provided no let up for the Labour leader.

In last week’s New Statesman, the Blue Labour thinker Maurice Glasman summed up many of the doubts currently circulating:

On the face of it, these look like bad times for Labour and for Ed Miliband’s leadership. There seems to be no strategy, no narrative and little energy.

This morning, ahead of a keynote speech on the economy, the Labour leader began the fight-back. Yet his appearance on Radio 4’s Today programme will have done little to convince his critics that he does, indeed, have strategy, narrative and energy.

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Today’s speech, to London Citizens (Glasman’s community organisation), is being billed as a major statement of Labour’s position on the economy. The key shift is that Miliband will stress the seriousness of the deficit. He will concede that this means the next government will have to make decisions that “all of us wish we did not have to take”, and that Labour can no longer depend on big spending.

On the Today programme, he trailed the message that Labour is “going to do it very differently from the past”. But predictably, this point was overshadowed by questions about his leadership: interviewer John Humphrys told him that he was considered a “drag on the party”, that the public do not view him as a leader, and asked whether he would stand down if considered unelectable. The response was: “It doesn’t arise, John. Doesn’t arise.” This illustrates Miliband’s determination to brush off these doubts about his presentational style as insubstantial and unimportant.

Arguably, there is little else he can do — but will it work? In the Times (£) today, Rachel Sylvester quotes a No.10 strategist:

Miliband’s got all the right messages. The focus groups like the things he says. The problem is that he’s the person saying them.

Sylvester expands on this:

He says the right things, but he does not get through to the voters. He is setting the political agenda, frequently forcing his rivals to adopt the lines he takes, and yet the public seem to listen to them more than they listen to him. You could say he’s leading and others are following, but it doesn’t feel like that. He’s like the woman who tells a joke at a dinner party but nobody laughs until it is repeated, more loudly, by the man sitting across the table.

It is certainly a “frustrating” situation (a word used by David Miliband in the Hindu Times this week), and it difficult to see how it can be turned around. Challenged by Humphrys with Glasman’s statement that he has so far “flickered rather than shone”, Miliband responded:

I’ve got a simple piece of advice for you. Don’t declare the result of the race when it’s not yet half run. Eighteen months into the parliament, you’re saying the race is already run. The race is not already run. We have five years. I have a very strong inner belief that I will win the race.

The question is whether this inner belief will help to win the public over. Unless it translates into support, it will do little good.