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19 June 2013

Will the real Ed Miliband please stand up?

His early supporters thought the Labour leader had the courage and intellectual energy to remake British politics. So what happened to the optimism?

By Rafael Behr

“Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the leader of the Labour Party,” declaims the bespectacled man in the dark suit, whom none of the assembled journalists has recognised as the mayor of Newham. “. . . And our next prime minister!” In the tiny pause that follows, a sceptical ripple passes through the audience. It is less audible than a titter, more like the rustle of a hundred eyebrows simultaneously raised in quizzical arches. “. . . Ed Milibaaand!” Applause.

We are at a conference centre overlooking one of east London’s grey-blue docks. On the far bank, a light aircraft stands on the runway of City Airport. But it could be any set-piece speech by the Labour leader. The format and the formulaic introduction are always the same – and I’ve seen a few. The reaction is the same, too. Even when the crowd is padded out with loyal party members, there is palpable disbelief at the assertion that Miliband will make it to Downing Street.

Yet arithmetic says that is the likeliest bet in 2015. If the Conservatives perform any worse than they did in 2010 – and there aren’t many reasons why they should do better – David Cameron is finished. With left-leaning refugees from the Liberal Democrats bolstering Miliband’s core vote and Ukip cannibalising Cameron’s, it is relatively easy for Labour to overtake the Tories. The number-crunchers in Miliband’s team have projections that push him over the parliamentary finish line with a vote share as small as 34 per cent. That should be a doddle against a divided government in a debilitated economy. In Labour’s worst-case scenarios, Miliband would lead a minority administration or coalition. He’d still be in No 10. “All the evidence shows that Ed Miliband is odds-on to become the next prime minister, even if he doesn’t quite win a majority,” says Andrew Harrop, the general secretary of the Fabian Society. “But the politicians and journalists who saw him as an outsider haven’t been able to make the psychological adjustment.”

Westminster doesn’t treat Miliband as a winner – and neither do many Labour MPs. “I backed Ed because I thought he would grow into the role,” says a prominent member of the cohort elected in 2010. “Now I don’t think he can. I don’t think we can win from here.” We are drinking tea in Portcullis House, the modern parliamentary annexe under whose vast, vaulted glass roof politicians, aides and journalists trade gossip on condition of anonymity. In their public pronouncements Labour MPs still put up a formidable front of unity, but sit down for a quiet cuppa and you quickly uncover gloomy forecasts of defeat.The party’s mood seems out of kilter with its maths. Why?

The accusations against the leader are many and often contradictory. He has failed to distance himself enough from New Labour and failed to defend the party’s record in office. He evades the truth about tight budgets and embraces austerity too eagerly. He has too little policy and too much. The party’s opinion poll lead feels soft – a lucky dividend from coalition mishaps, not an endorsement of the opposition. Three years of denouncing George Osborne have not succeeded in transferring blame for Britain’s economic malaise from the last regime to the incumbent one.

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In Miliband’s office there is frustration that the leader gets so little credit for bringing the party even within sight of victory when expectations started so low. “I genuinely think we’re doing better than most people seem to realise,” says a very senior aide. “It’s a point-in-the-parliament thing.”

Those in Miliband’s inner circle insist there is a long game being played that takes account of two factors often overlooked by commentators: first, the Fixed-term Parliaments Act, which deprives Cameron of any element of surprise in the timing of an election and, second, the lack of precedent to judge how oppositions ought to be performing against coalitions under extreme economic conditions. This, say Miliband’s friends, makes it unwise to start revealing a policy hand too early. As one close adviser puts it: “There are two groups of people who want us to have more policies – the Tories, so they can attack them with the full resources of government at their disposal, and the media, so they have something to write about.”

Uncertain times require reticence, for now, until the party rolls out its agenda for government next year. That has always been the plan, says another Miliband confidant; jitters and jeers were anticipated. “We always knew this would be a consequence of the strategic choices we made, but you’ve got to hold your nerve. Real credibility demands we wait.”

Meanwhile, veterans of more fractious periods in Labour history recognise the intrinsic value of a united front – even if it is brittle and achieved by deferring difficult choices. “Silence on some things is the price you pay for unity at this stage,” says David Owen, one of the moderates who broke away from Labour to found the Social Democratic Party in 1981. “[Miliband’s] heart is in the right place and he’s created conditions that really maximise party unity . . . It’s realistic for him to want to keep his options open now.”

No one can say with any confidence how well he is pulling off the task of returning an exiled party to government within one term, because it hasn’t been done recently. For a generation, politics has been played out over long cycles – 18 years of Tory rule, ending in Tony Blair’s landslide victory, then 13 years of New Labour, culminating in crushing defeat.

In 2010 there was a presumption in the media and parliament alike that Labour was due a spell in the wilderness. That view was reinforced by a leadership contest that unexpectedly led to the crowning of the younger Miliband brother. Tory strategists punched the air when Ed’s victory was announced. Grandees from the Blair era texted each other with variations on the theme “We’re screwed”. The received wisdom had it that the opposition would self-immolate on the margins as the real battles were fought in the novel arena of coalition government. Instead, Labour remained disciplined and bounced back within two years. No circular firing squads; no lurches to the hard left.

Much of the negativity around Miliband, his cheerleaders say, reflects a habit of mind that hasn’t caught up with the facts. There is an irreconcilable faction that harbours a feeling that Ed didn’t even win the leadership election properly, because he was not the first choice of most party members or MPs. It was the trade unions that tipped the scales in his favour.

Grumbling about the process glosses over important features of Miliband’s pitch to the party. His candidacy wouldn’t have got off the ground without insight into what the left wanted after 13 years of Labour government. The movement was demoralised by the compromises demanded by power. It was in reactive mode, recoiling from the Blair-Brown embrace of a version of free-market capitalism that seemed to have expired in the 2007- 2008 financial crisis. Surely, Labour told itself, the pendulum was about to swing left.

That instinct is fundamental to the emerging Miliband doctrine. It holds that there was a thread of ideological continuity running from the Conservative governments in the 1980s into the New Labour years – a deference to laissez-faire capitalism that reached a catastrophic climax in the financial crisis. Central to the Labour leader’s self-belief is the conviction that Britain is ripe for transformation equivalent in scale to the social and economic revolution planned by intellectual conservatives in the late 1970s and unleashed by Margaret Thatcher.

In 2010, given the context of the biggest crisis in capitalism in living memory, many on the left felt that a candidate who spoke with sincere passion about reversing inequality and restoring a national spirit of solidarity could reawaken a dormant socialdemocratic impulse in the British electorate. Backers of the junior Miliband thought he might be the one.

“Ed seemed to be someone who had a genuine view of what social-democratic politics could be,” Roy Hattersley, a veteran of Lab – our’s long march through opposition in the 1980s, told me. “I hoped and believed he would articulate that.” Miliband also had the enthusiastic support of Neil Kinnock.

For many supporters of New Labour, those endorsements sounded like the doomed rallying cry of pious losers who had spent their chance to win power with the party’s landmark defeat by John Major in 1992. Many walked away. Senior figures, including exministers and top policy advisers, refused invitations to work in the leader’s office. David Miliband twice rejected offers to join the shadow cabinet. James Purnell, the former work and pensions secretary, turned down the chance to be Ed’s chief of staff. The post went unfilled for over a year before being taken by Tim Livesey, a former diplomat and adviser to the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Most elections are followed by a honeymoon period. Miliband had none. One consequence of the loneliness of that time is the Labour leader’s enduring dependence on the handful of people who believed in him from the start. He consults widely on both the left and the right of the party, but insiders say there is a clear hierarchy of trust based on purity of conviction.

At the innermost core are those with impeccable credentials as early adopters of the Ed philosophy: Stewart Wood, the Oxford academic, former Treasury official and exadviser to Gordon Brown who now has the title of shadow minister without portfolio, and Marc Stears, an old Oxford University friend of Miliband who this year took the formal role of chief speechwriter. Outsiders see the leader’s operation as an intellectual clique whose remoteness from the body of the party is exaggerated by the location of the leader of the opposition’s official suite of rooms at the top of Norman Shaw South, a dingy, red-brick, Edwardian-era addition to the parliamentary estate.

Miliband’s walls are lined with reproductions of vintage 1940s Labour campaign posters and visitors report that the atmosphere sometimes owes more to a protracted seminar in a university faculty than a campaign headquarters. First drafts of speeches, born with radical intent, are drained of passion in endless committee revisions. There is a rearguard action, often led by Tom Baldwin, Miliband’s  senior communications adviser, to impose “punter-friendly” language – translating the abstract ideas into something that might mean something to voters.

Miliband employs a small army of policy experts, but very few feel authorised to debate the underlying strategic judgement – the belief in Britain’s hunger for a new moralising account of how the economy should be structured. Members of Labour’s front bench are judged by their zeal in advancing the “responsible capitalism agenda”. Shadow ministers are accused of failing to do their share of “the heavy lifting” in developing the argument. There is muttering in the leader’s office about a lack of intellectual ambition on the opposition benches at a time when David Cameron, by contrast, has an embarrassment of ideological outriders on his right flank.

The riposte from the shadow cabinet is that ambitions to outride are thwarted by caution in the leader’s office. Attempts to set out innovative positions are fed into the central machine, where they are suffocated with caveats. (When this is put to Miliband’s team the response is withering: “We aren’t aware of some great bubbling-up of ideas.”)

Shadow ministers and MPs struggle with the leader’s ponderous attitude to decisionmaking. They accuse his office of lacking agility, failing to get the best TV clips into the evening news bulletins on days when big stories are breaking. “There is too much sitting around for four days and then giving something to the Observer which no one will read,” says a frontbencher of Miliband’s supposedly rapid responses. “There’s too much of Labour telling people what they should be worried about, when we want them to be worried about it.”

Miliband has made it clear that he won’t be bounced into taking positions when newspapers demand it, because the Tories have set some parliamentary trap or because a subject happens to be dominating the 24-hour news schedule. He isn’t fazed by the “daily froth”, say friends. He intervenes when he has worked out what exactly what kind of intervention he wants to make.

The Docklands speech was months in gestation. It was designed to be the definitive response to criticisms that Labour lacked an adequate response to Tory promises to cap welfare spending – a position that George Osborne has been using to discomfit the opposition since his 2010 spending review.

Finally, Miliband set out his version of a cap. He made the case for addressing underlying causes of high social security spending rather than tearing away repeatedly at the safety net. Use limited resources on building homes, he said, not housing benefit. Subsidise job creation, he implored, instead of handing out dole money. Imposing budget discipline should not oblige us “to leave our values at the door”.

It was a careful synthesis of fiscal rectitude and conscientious outrage and, with some recalcitrant exceptions, the speech was received with acclaim and relief in the party. Miliband’s team felt vindicated in the approach of not rushing into announcements until the boss had clarified his thinking and chosen a course with which he could be politically and morally satisfied.

Labour MPs are ambivalent about this temperament, admiring or ridiculing it as the “Zen” attitude to opposition. It often leaves them milling around, uncertain what direction the leader is about to take. Miliband pushes his luck, leaving crucial decisions untaken for so long that the party starts to sound restive and discipline looks close to breaking down. Then the leader emerges from his meditations carrying tablets of stone engraved with policy pronouncements.

It is a pattern that speaks of an apprenticeship in Gordon Brown’s Treasury. The two men have entirely different temperaments (MPs from all parties say the current Labour leader is vastly more likeable than his predecessor) but they share the habit of meditating for too long over big strategic questions and then unveiling the answer in densely argued, technical speeches.

 It is often said in Labour circles that there are two Ed Milibands. There is the one whose principled ardour and appreciation of the need for drastic economic and social renewal won him the leadership in the first place. Then there is the ultra-cautious one, who is a creature of machine politics and who has risen to the top of the Westminster establishment by tactical increments. “He wants to be a radical reformer in the mould of Thatcher,” says Patrick Diamond, a former Downing Street adviser who is now senior research fellow at the Policy Network think tank. “On the other hand, he is a pragmatic technician who reached maturity in politics working at the feet of Gordon Brown.”

If Miliband bears the imprint of Brownism, Ed Balls is steeped in it. The shadow chancellor has his own bunker operation that works in collaboration with the leader’s office but not in deference to it. Of all the impediments to the advancement of the “responsible capitalism” agenda, the greatest by far is the refusal by Labour’s most prominent economic policy figure to take it seriously.

Miliband’s strategy in the run-up to 2015 is meant to involve the revelation of an economic model that will tip the balance of power away from big finance and corporate behemoths towards small businesses and ordinary citizens. Yet the shadow chancellor has said nothing on that theme. His most notable intervention recently was an oath of fiscal discipline – in effect pledging to spend no more than the coalition – choreographed with Miliband’s welfare speech to give an impression of shared frugal resolve.

The concern, especially on the left of the party, is that Miliband and Balls will end up fighting an election as the people who agree with Cameron and Osborne about cuts, only three years late.

For Labour’s offer to be qualitatively different, the leadership’s idealism has to be rooted in budgetary realism but transcend it. Balls, for all his undisputed talents as an economist and political operator, doesn’t do visionary idealism. So say his critics. His allies reply that a shadow chancellor cannot be held responsible for a leader’s inability to sell his own vision. Balls loyalists struggle to conceal their disdain for Miliband’s style of wonky presentation.

MPs and activists don’t need focus groups to tell them the leader is not wowing a mass audience. Friends and constituents tell them he comes across as unassuming and awkward. He inspires neither great acrimony nor particular affection. That, say the optimists, means there is capacity for improvement. The more the voters see, the more they will like. Miliband’s allies point out that defying expectations – benefiting from others underestimating him – has been the pattern of his leadership so far.

“Everyone at every stage has asked if Ed can do the next bit,” says the former cabinet minister John Denham, who sometimes advises Miliband. “Can he perform on the national stage? Can he do Prime Minister’s Questions? Can he set the political agenda? Can he win local elections? The answer every time has been ‘yes’. The next step is: can he become a really popular leader in the country? I think he can do it. That’s the step that has got to be made.”

The Conservatives are relying on the pros – pect that Miliband will wilt under the campaign spotlight. Downing Street strategists, recalling their own experience in building the Cameron brand, say there is a very narrow window – a year or two – in which a candidate has enough benefit of the doubt to control public perceptions. After that, he is vulnerable to being typecast as something his enemies want him to be. In Miliband’s case, that thing is a “blancmange in a hurricane” – Michael Gove’s description of a man he finds too wobbly to be entrusted with command in extreme economic conditions.

Some doubts were suspended after Mili – band’s “one nation” speech to Labour’s annual conference in Manchester last October. The confident delivery and optimistic message gave the gathered faithful hope that their leader could indeed mobilise an optimistic spirit of collective national endeavour. But eight months later, few Labour MPs think “one nation” is making any great advances into the public consciousness. There are dismissive comparisons with Cameron’s flimsy “big society” rhetoric.

Miliband’s team rejects the analogy, urging patience as the great strategy unfurls. But Labour feels its patience stretched, not least because the Tories look so eminently beatable. Miliband is not so much a victim of his own successes as a casualty of his enemies’ premature failures. The fractiousness of the coalition and Cameron’s tenuous control over his party have invited early speculation about Miliband’s credentials as a successor – and he doesn’t look ready.

Meanwhile, Ukip is scooping up stray protest votes. Labour’s assumption that the financial crisis heralded a realignment of politics on the left didn’t factor in a midterm populist insurgency on the right.

The government’s mistakes gave Labour hope when they expressed an opportunity. Now the mass of Cameron’s problems has become the scale for measuring Miliband’s weakness whenever he fails to press home the advantage.

The numbers agree that he could become Britain’s next prime minister in 2015. If Labour’s current average opinion-poll lead of about 7 points were replicated in a general election, Ed Miliband would emerge to govern with a majority of roughly 90 seats. Yet no one in the party thinks that, or anything close to it, will happen. Labour is suspended between what it knows is possible and what it feels is likely. Even Miliband’s staunchest supporters fear that the evangelical energy is draining away from the project.

“If Mrs Thatcher taught us anything it was that people find conviction attractive even when they disagree with it,” Hattersley says. “I have no doubt that Ed has that. He just needs to show it. We need a more proselytising approach and I think Ed can do it. But I also think he has to get on with it.”