Over the past few years my research has looked closely at Ed Miliband’s leadership performance. Through textual analysis, elite interviews and focus groups, I’ve sought to deconstruct the way Miliband has sought to define and embody a narrative that inspires the public to throw its weight (and votes) behind Labour.
We found moments of genuine success, particularly in the “One Nation” speech Miliband gave at the 2012 Labour party conference. Until this point, Miliband’s narrative had been akin to a Shakespearian tragedy – the pretender who knifed his brother to usurp his claim to the throne of the fallen king. But in his highly personalised articulation of “One Nation” values, Miliband appeared to have successfully assumed the role of the young Prince.
However, this narrative stumbled. It was simply too divisive and too critical of New Labour – a regime which may have fallen but was the embodiment of rhetorical clusters (public service reform, economic discipline and pro-aspiration, etc) that still resonate with many within and beyond the party.
All is not lost, even at this late stage.
First, Miliband needs a team that can be relied on to cheer on the One Nation narrative, not simply mumble its support whenever party plot rumours surface. His team must be actively performing the narrative themselves, going out there and being seen by the party, the media and the voters as a unified, slick, powerfully-performed Labour. Miliband must give his inner circle an ultimatum: back me or get out.
Second, he needs to make peace with New Labour by reconciling its rhetoric within “One Nation”. For too long, Miliband has distanced himself from the ideals of New Labour, which, for all its faults, served the party well with its unifying rhetoric. It’s time to stop campaigning against the most successful moment in his party’s history.
Third, Miliband must make sure that strong performance is matched by strong policies. Labour must make clear what its plan is for its first 100 days in power. The party could and should have developed a whole set of distinct policies by now, especially in the key areas of the economy, devolution and immigration. Task each shadow minister with producing a five-point crib sheet for every policy.
Finally, Miliband must make sure that a unified One Nation narrative, actively promoted by an enthusiastic shadow cabinet/election team, articulates a vision of tomorrow. It doesn’t matter if this vision is more mythological than concrete, it must simply identify how the values of One Nation will be applied to build a better future.
Labour’s chance is slipping away. If it is going to make any kind of effort to win in May, it must do it now. It must stick with Miliband – to change leader now would reek of weakness – but Miliband must assume true leadership before it’s too late. Can he do it? Of course he can. He has kept the party united like no other leader. He and his team need only “lift” the party narrative to a national narrative. Do that and he’s the next prime minister.
John Gaffney is Professor of Politics at Aston University and Co-Director of the Aston Centre for Europe. His study of UK political leadership will be published in a book, “Leadership and the Labour Party: The One Nation Adventure”, by Palgrave following the May 2015 general election