Ed Miliband has had mixed results as an opposition leader – but he might shine as prime minister

A new book by Tim Bale takes us as close as possible to understanding the awkward enigma that is Ed.

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Five Year Mission: the Labour Party Under Ed Miliband
Tim Bale
Oxford University Press, 306pp, £10.99

No quality matters more in an author, at least in the eyes of publishers, than timing: ripeness is all. Tim Bale’s book on Ed Miliband, quite possibly our next prime minister, published in the first week of the election campaign, is an oozing, ripe tomato.

What we need to know about this mercurial and puzzling character is how well he has led Labour since 2010, whether he has done enough to guarantee power after just one period in opposition and what kind of prime minister he might be. Bale succeeds admirably, offering a pithy and intelligent book that takes us about as far as we can go in understanding this awkward enigma inside a pained exterior. Bale may lack the elegance, wit and insight of Andrew Rawnsley, Labour’s chronicler from 1997 to 2010. But he gives us a hugely readable work of contemporary history. After reading it, many will find a Miliband premiership a more likely and, indeed, a more attractive proposition.

Bale recounts the five advantages that Labour will have on 7 May: an election system favouring the party, especially after the Lib Dems blocked the boundary review in 2012; Ukip’s rise damaging the Conservatives more than Labour; widespread concerns over living standards; rising fears over what the Tories may do to the NHS (even if unwarranted); and some neat work on the ground by activists in marginals. Social-democrat leaders in Europe, apart from Matteo Renzi in Italy, have not fared well. The terrain is much tougher for Labour now than it was in 1997 or 2001, thanks in part to the unforeseen rise of the SNP and the foreseeable collapse of the Scottish Labour Party. It remains a moot point whether Miliband has done enough to capitalise on the years of opinion-poll leads to win a victory unbound by the tartan glove of Nicola Sturgeon’s SNP.

The electorate does not believe that George Osborne has cracked the economy. Many voters have experienced a real-terms decrease in wages and are in no mood to accept the Lynton Crosby mantra about a “long-term economic plan”. Miliband deserves more credit than Bale gives him for making the inherent inequality in 21st-century Britain the leitmotif of his leadership. He has stuck courageously to his theme that it is no longer tenable, efficient or just for the top 1 per cent to cream off so much and for the bottom 50 per cent to have so little. But has he done enough to convince voters in May that Labour will make them better off?

Bale takes us through Labour’s defeat in the 2010 general election, Miliband’s narrow victory over his brother and the highs and lows of the party’s leadership story until early 2015. He skilfully combines academic analysis, statistical data and anecdotal evidence. His view, based on multiple interviews, is that Miliband would make a better prime minister than many believe. I tend to agree with him, especially as he would be supported by the Rolls-Royce civil service machine. Bale argues that Miliband suffered as leader of the opposition from constantly having to make trade-offs between clarity and unity – and the former lost out.

He suggests that there are fundamentally two Ed Milibands. One is the dreamer, who believes in reforming the British economy into a more Germanic model with high pay and high skills. The other is Gordon Brown’s apprentice, who cannot take decisions and who frets about the press and what people are saying about him. Bale writes that these two Eds are responsible for the disjuncture between the intellectual “pamphlet Labour” and the populist “leaflet Labour” over the past five years.

Miliband is no fool and has some significant achievements to his name. He has held a divided party together, allowing it to go into the general election united, at least on the surface and at least until election night. He has made headlines on press regulation, bankers’ bonuses, gas and electricity pricing, the minimum wage and payday lending, and for deterring the Prime Minister from taking action against Syria. Credit is given to his chief aide, Stewart Wood, for helping to articulate “the supply-side revolution from the left”.

Miliband has shown strength in standing up to Rupert Murdoch, the Israel lobby, the corporate and banking sectors and the Foreign Office establishment. He has shown us, at times, that he has gravitas, as befitting a politician who has served as a cabinet minister and who understands the inner workings of the Treasury, the Foreign Office and No 10. He proved more decisive as energy and climate-change secretary under Brown than he had in his earlier post at the Cabinet Office, showing grit and authority over Heathrow and driving carbon targets through Whitehall. He has more resilience than many give him credit for and he has needed that resilience these past five years.

But do his weaknesses outweigh his strengths? Miliband lacks several character traits important for a prime minister. He is very cerebral and can fail instinctively to understand others, painfully hard though he sometimes tries. His warmth and humour in private don’t translate easily on to the public stage. One wonders how comfortable he will be as prime minister, constantly on camera and having to take decisions of grave importance minute by minute, not day by day.

Question marks remain over his ability to turn bright ideas, which he can scatter like confetti, into practical policies. He has told us about the squeezed middle, “one-nation” Labour and iniquitous bankers avoiding tax. Yet the passion can peter out. In his 2011 conference speech, he spoke about the end of the “something for nothing” society. But then what? Likewise, after his powerful 2012 speech, little happened. He was riding high in the polls. He could have driven the party hard to accept some home truths. It is as if he doesn’t fully understand how to spend political capital.

He has failed to win the respect of many of his MPs and Labour supporters. Increasingly since last autumn, they have come to believe that the party may not win with him as their leader. An Ipsos MORI poll in November 2014 found dissatisfaction with him among Labour supporters at 58 per cent, the highest figure in the 20 years that this question has been asked. He is an intelligent man like his mentor Gordon Brown but both of them lack the self-knowledge to recognise their shortcomings.

Miliband’s infelicities – eating bacon sandwiches, forgetting to mention the Budget deficit in his 2014 conference speech and posing in the wrong kitchen – carry force because they seem to suggest a truth about him. Self-confident people don’t need to proclaim, “Hell, yes!” He badly needs a coach, a guru or a god to help him become a more complete and rounded person, comfortable in his own skin. Bale doesn’t tell us much about the inner man. This is revealing. One wonders how well Miliband understands his own hinterland.

On devolution, he did not complete the Jon Cruddas agenda, which would have brought together various wings of the party and bonded it with its councillors across the country. He had the opportunity to champion English devolution and address the needs of England, which would have brought him credit. George Osborne’s “northern powerhouse” could have been Miliband’s.

Opposition leaders need to fulfil certain basic tasks. How should we rate Miliband at them? First, they need to construct an agenda for government, at least in outline. For all the flair of some of his shadow ministers, it is still far from obvious what Labour’s education, health and welfare policies would be. Labour used to set the agenda on public services. It doesn’t any more. On Europe, Miliband naively believes, as Cameron did before 2010, that he can avoid the EU overshadowing his entire premiership. Not a hope in hell.

On foreign policy, he failed to press home his assertive (if opportunistic) lead, stopping intervention in Syria in August 2013. It remains unclear what his foreign policy beliefs are. What would he do about the EU, Putin, defence spending and Islamic State terrorism? Barack Obama’s White House has little time for him, as was made clear earlier this year. On economic policy, for all his own intellectual clarity, the message to the electorate would have been clearer if it had chimed more with that of Ed Balls and the shadow business secretary, Chuka Umunna.

Opposition leaders need strong shadow ministers. On this, Miliband has fared better. He had a mission to develop new talent and he has done this well – Rachel Reeves, Caroline Flint, Umunna and Tristram Hunt. The pitch might have been stronger if he had more heavyweights from the past like David Blunkett. Despite failing twice to bring back his brother, David, he has in effect marshalled his not-always-easy team.

Miliband’s personal team, however, has some weak links, especially among his media advisers. David Axelrod, Obama’s election guru, whom Miliband hired as a campaign strategist in April 2014, has found it hard to match Crosby, recruited by the Conservatives. Miliband badly needed a figure like Peter Mandelson, who steered Neil Kinnock in the 1980s, or Philip Gould, who guided Blair in the 1990s. But either he didn’t ask or he didn’t realise his need. Perhaps Axelrod hasn’t fully understood UK politics, so different from that of the US. More likely, he was not given the central role that his Conservative opposite number demanded.

Opposition leaders need to prepare the party financially and organisationally for power. Here Miliband has done a good job. The Collins report reformed the party’s links with the trade unions, which allowed their funding to be maintained. Crucially, they need to hold the party together. Bale rightly gives him credit for this, especially in view of Labour’s tendency to self-destruct.
That said, Miliband has yet to define fully a post-Blair-and-Brown Labour Party. It is still stuck in no-man’s-land, somewhere between the forces of Emperor Tony and Emperor Gordon, with the generals drawn from the latter’s camp but the troops hankering after the victories that the former brought them.

Miliband deserves plaudits for landing punches on the government. Osborne fell on his knees and shouted, “Yes, yes, yes!” in September 2010 when he saw the outcome of Labour’s leadership election but Miliband has often proved tougher and brighter than Osborne and Cameron predicted. He could have done more, though, to exploit the difficulties of the government, as on prison escapes, U-turns on forests and much else, the “omnishambles” Budget of 2012, problems over Universal Credit, and the failure to cut immigration and the deficit significantly. He could have ridiculed Osborne for carrying out Alistair Darling’s economic policy while claiming that he wasn’t.

Opposition leaders must reach out beyond their core vote, as Blair did superbly and as Boris Johnson promises to do if he succeeds Cameron. But Miliband seems unwilling or incapable of doing this. The Tory success with business support early in the campaign leads one to wonder how far he understands the importance of having business squarely behind Labour in the election.

In choosing to stand for the leadership in 2010, Miliband set his bar high. He could have chosen to support his more experienced elder bother and bided his time. But he told us he was ready.

He has proved himself a better opposition leader than Michael Foot (1980-83) but he has been nothing like as focused as Hugh Gaitskell (1955-63), or even Neil Kinnock (1983-92). He hasn’t stood up to his party and shaken it by the neck as they did. If he loses the election and is swept away, he will go down in history as a figure of similar quality to John Smith, who in­troduced some change but failed sufficiently to recognise that the party needed to be overhauled.

Ed Miliband had the chance to go last autumn, when this magazine and some in his party questioned his position. He could have left with dignity, having brought Labour towards victory but recognising his limitations in carrying it over the line. He now runs the risk of being roundly excoriated if Labour is defeated. But this paradoxical figure could yet win in May and turn out to be a better prime minister than almost any expected. Could this be his master plan?

Anthony Seldon’s most recent books include “Beyond Happiness” (Yellow Kite) and “The Coalition Effect, 2010-2015” (Cambridge University Press), co-edited with Mike Finn

This article appears in the 17 April 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Election Special