The present political battle is like a closely fought tennis match. One of two individuals will be prime minister after the next election and an unforced error or some neatly played strokes can change the dynamics suddenly. A short time ago, David Cameron was in trouble as an embryonic leadership contest seemed to be taking shape under his ghostly eyes. Following the Budget and a narrowing of the gap in the polls, Ed Miliband faces a crisis.
The impossible task of leadership becomes even tougher for the player in difficulty. Dissenters grumble more loudly. There is a sense of panic. The noisy, fickle Greek chorus in the media prophesies doom. But a crisis also provides a chance to pose questions and learn lessons. What are the tensions within Labour’s senior ranks exposed by the current furore? How serious are they? What should Miliband do about them? In a close contest, the answers will determine whether the Labour leader emerges as the victor in 2015.
One source of tension cited by a range of senior Labour figures is the dynamic between Miliband and his office and the way they relate to other shadow cabinet colleagues. Of course, it is easy to blame the leader’s office. Such complaints are common even when an opposition leader is comfortably ahead in the polls. Nonetheless, familiar protestations tend to have some substance to them. In this case, Miliband’s staff are loyal to him personally but in their determined or fearful supportiveness there is little space for critical candour.
Nearly all those who work for Miliband are dependent on his patronage. He chose them and they are pleased to be close to him. They do not want to say things that he does not want to hear. The contrast with Tony Blair’s office is marked. Blair had to plead with Alastair Campbell to join him, going out to see him while Campbell was on holiday in France as part of the energetic wooing process. Campbell could be brutally candid because he knew Blair wanted him so much. Other advisers, such as Peter Mandelson, had been senior to Blair in the 1980s. They, too, could be ruthlessly or constructively critical, sometimes both. This does not happen very much in Miliband’s office; indeed, the opposite can happen. I am told that sometimes his staff applaud him when he returns from making a mediocre speech.
The Labour leader’s reply to the Budget was poor and this was one of the triggers for the latest mini-crisis. Someone should have told him in advance that, given that his critics argue wrongly that he has no economic policy, he must never make a speech that allows them to make the case with credibility. Evidently no one did. Miliband must take some of the responsibility for this. He tends to be uncharacteristically dismissive of criticism. When some dare to ask him about the negative reaction to his Budget speech, he responds by insisting, “That comes with the territory,” as if there was an inevitability about the sequence, when there was not.
One of his strengths is an ability to stay calm in the midst of media frenzies. When he was working for Gordon Brown, he lived through so many apparent crises and noted that most of them came and went without changing anything. The experience gives him a healthy sense of perspective but one that can also lead to denial. Sometimes there are lessons to be learned.
Because his staff are so devoted, there is a degree of paranoia about the conduct of other frontbenchers. I hear reports of inadvertent or intended rudeness towards shadow cabinet members. This is wholly unnecessary provocation, not least when one of Miliband’s qualities is his natural, unstuffy politeness. The instinct to assume the worst of others is dangerous. After the Budget, some reports suggested that Ed Balls had briefed malevolently that Miliband had messed up his response to George Osborne. I was at Balls’s briefing and those reports were wrong. The shadow chancellor was attempting to prove that Osborne had delivered a politically insignificant Budget when he and the Labour leader had been expecting him to announce a totemic tax cut. It was an attack on Osborne, not Miliband.
This should have been obvious. If Balls had wanted to attack his leader, he would not have done so in front of 40 journalists. But some in Miliband’s office were convinced that this was precisely what had happened. Balls is not the only one viewed with an excessive amount of suspicion. Whatever their private criticisms of their leader, members of the shadow cabinet want to win the next election and sense that they have a chance of doing so. They need and want Miliband to perform well.
The relationship between party leader and shadow chancellor is fundamental. But the current tensions extend wider and are fluid. In this era of deliberately imprecise ideological definition, the division is portrayed as one between cautious expediency and radicalism. There is no such neat divide. Miliband was courageous in hailing responsible capitalism and failing markets as his crusade. Balls is more cautious about Miliband’s big idea but was resolutely bolder in insisting there should be no apology for Labour’s public spending record in government.
Jon Cruddas, the head of the policy review, works closely with Maurice Glasman, the academic ennobled by Miliband after he became leader. They share an enthusiasm for the German economic model – devolution of power, vocational training, a smaller state, regional banks, workers on boards and the rest. Miliband first met his closest ally, Stewart Wood, in Germany and they are also keen on the model but the Labour leader has yet to decide how much to incorporate in a pre-election pitch. A lot of the tension between Miliband and others relates to what can and cannot be advocated in a general election, one mediated by a largely right-wing media.
An important character in the crisis is the Greek chorus. Even in fair-minded commentaries, the internal dissenters are reported largely uncritically, as if they were purveyors of wisdom compared to their flawed leader. Most of the dissenters would not survive a moment’s scrutiny if they were a leader of a party. To take one example, the absurd letter to the Guardian on 23 March – from various “progressive” think tanks calling, with vacuous urgency, for greater empowerment of the people – was reported initially with near-reverence when it was close to being meaningless.
How significant are these tensions? There has been no act of dissent to compare with Clare Short’s interview with me in the New Statesman in 1996 when, as a member of the shadow cabinet, she attacked those who worked with Blair and described as a “lie” the claim that Old Labour had become New. The ideological divide was incomparably greater in the 1970s and 1980s. The complaints against Neil Kinnock and his office were louder than those against Miliband’s.
One authority-sapping constant is Miliband’s low personal ratings. But after the Blair/Brown dominance, Labour had no ready-formed leaders in 2010. Whoever won would have had to learn the art of leadership at the centre of the stage. Miliband has got the big policy calls right, an essential component of leadership. In contrast, his internal and media opponents shout contradictory instructions. Be bolder! Be less bold! Consult more widely before taking decisions! Start taking decisions, rather than consulting weakly!
In a close battle, minor tensions unresolved and small lessons not learned will lead to defeat. Few follow politics in the raw, so the media remain powerful. There is nothing Miliband can do about bias but two assertions made repeatedly by his critics are so nonsensical they can be demolished. The most persistent line of attack is that Miliband and Balls must apologise for the reckless spending of the last Labour government and nothing is possible before they show contrition. Miliband must shout from the rooftops that he has been the most contrite leader of the opposition in history. He has declared that the Iraq war, the regulation of financial markets and Labour’s approach to immigration were all mistaken.
In the late 1970s, Margaret Thatcher was never asked to apologise for the three-day week though she had been a cabinet minister previously: she apologised for nothing. Miliband needs to proclaim practically every day how unusual it is for a leader to acknowledge errors and to learn from them.
The other common accusation is that the Labour leader has nothing to say on economic policy. In specific policies, there is more detail than under Blair and Brown at this stage of the parliament and in his assessment of what went wrong when the global economy crashed he has had a lot to say.
Contrary to the predictions of many, Miliband has been a unifier and yet he has managed to infuriate colleagues unnecessarily. There is no room or need for paranoia. In the same spirit, his front-bench team should be promoted in public almost as much as the leader. In 1974, when, for different reasons, Harold Wilson’s ratings were terrible, he presented a series of brilliant party election broadcasts in which he and his team were joint stars. He was often seen with Shirley Williams, who was hugely popular. It worked. They won close elections, even though Wilson was often portrayed as exhausted and even bonkers. Miliband’s team is more varied than Cameron’s. The more he is seen with Yvette Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Gloria De Piero, Emma Reynolds, Chuka Umunna and co, the better for him.
Ed Miliband is a very different leader from Blair and he is leading in an unrecognisably different context. But there are some lessons to be learned from the lawyerly focus Blair displayed in opposition. During the Easter recess of 1996, Blair took a week off alone and went through every policy, bomb-proofing them in terms of electoral scrutiny and making sure that each one fitted with the pitch at the next election. Some big changes emerged as a result. Blair decided he had to offer a referendum on his plans for a Scottish parliament, given that he was proposing referendums on other constitutional changes. All hell broke loose briefly after the change but he had a consistent line on referendums. Miliband must decide what his pitch will be at the 2015 election and make sure every policy complies with it and every member of the shadow cabinet is clear about how he intends to win.
There is a long way to go in this game of closely fought tennis. Neither player will enjoy the commanding authority that descends when one is well ahead of the other in the polls. Yet the winner will be the player who learns quickly when it is his turn to be in trouble. The general election is still Labour’s to lose. If it does lose, Miliband will have a lot to answer for and it will surely be the end of his political career.
Steve Richards performs his one-man stage show “Rock’n’Roll Politics” at Kings Place, London N1, on 28 April