One of the regular pieces of advice offered to Ed Miliband is to recruit some “greybeards” to his shadow cabinet – Alan Johnson, Alistair Darling, Jack Straw and others – to add heft and experience to Labour’s frontbench. But as David Blunkett stated on the Today programme this morning, that’s not a path Miliband is going to pursue. He said it was “made clear earlier in the year that the oldies wouldn’t be coming back”. Rather than leading a shadow cabinet dominated by figures from the last Labour government, Miliband wants to promote “the new generation” he spoke of in his first conference speech.
Blunkett added that he and other former ministers would have to find “new ways of being able to contribute”, noting Alistair Darling’s chairmanship of Better Together and the review he is leading for the party on local oversight of schools (another example is Andrew Adonis’s review of growth policies). He suggested that the much-criticised shadow cabinet would benefit from his wisdom: “What we could do better is probably us joining up with younger, enthusiastic, energetic, upcoming people so that we can give them a bit of advice if they are prepared to listen to us.”
Asked whether Miliband “has got what it takes”, Blunkett gave a more equivocal answer than the leadership will have wanted, stating: “I think Mr Miliband has demonstrated on a number of occasions that he can do it but he won’t be able to do it alone and nor should he. Clem Attlee wasn’t the most vibrant, in public terms, opponent. He was a fantastic leader of the Labour Party”.
His comments reminded me of Caroline Flint’s observation at the weekend that leaders don’t have to be personally popular to win elections. Both are right. In the final poll before the 1979 election, for instance, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as “the best prime minister” but that didn’t stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson’s personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51% approval rating compared to one of 28% for Heath) didn’t prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat.
But Labour figures should avoid giving the impression that the party could win in spite of Miliband, rather than because of him. If his own MPs seem to lack faith in his abilities, they can’t expect the public to warm to him.