Jim Murphy, leader of Scottish Labour, must have watched last night’s leaders’ debate with a sense of deep gloom. Once the natural party of government in Scotland, Labour is bracing itself to be routed at the polls on 7 May, losing many of its 41 Scottish seats to the SNP.
Ed Miliband’s performance in Salford was creditable but Nicola Sturgeon’s was much better. The SNP leader is an accomplished debater and she is adept at combining the personal with the political – for instance, when she spoke about how education in the state sector had helped her rise from a working class family to her present position of eminence. She smiles easily and naturally (such as when Nigel Farage referred to “canny Scots”) but is also unrelenting and combative.
She is an unashamed social democrat, as Miliband also is, and yet she somehow seems more at ease in her own skin than the Labour frontman, confidently presenting herself as the leader of an anti-austerity party (this positioning is popular in Scotland and contrasts favourably with Labour’s awkward embrace of austerity).
How Labour must wish that Sturgeon had chosen to join them as a young woman rather than the SNP. But there are of course significant differences between her and Miliband: she is opposed to the renewal of Trident and wants all nuclear weapons removed from the River Clyde and obviously is a separatist, hence her original decision to opt for the SNP.
Miliband had learned his brief well – no one doubts he has an excellent memory or believes what he says – but he was too often rigid and, because he was intent on directly confronting David Cameron, he missed opportunities to wound Farage, Nick Clegg and even Sturgeon. He was vulnerable to attack from his left flank – by Leanne Wood, in particular – and took one heavy blow from Nick Clegg but, rather than punch back, he merely renewed his assault on the Conservative leader.
This was not the transformative performance that Miliband yearned for and believes he is capable of. As long ago as last summer, he told me that he believed the televised leaders’ debates would be his moment, his opportunity properly to introduce himself to the British people – to show them who he is and what he believes and wants. Well, Ed, they are watching now!
Miliband’s family history, as the historian David Cesarini has written, “captures the 20th century. It is the story of a persecuted minority, migration, Marxism and anti-fascism, the plight of refugees, the horror of genocide and the courage of rescuers, rebuilding lives in new countries.” It is indeed inspiring and shows Britain – open, welcoming, plural – at its best.
Why did Miliband not use last night’s platform to speak about this – especially when others were making personal as well as party statements (Wood about the Welsh valleys, Sturgeon about her working class origins, Clegg about his beloved “Miriam”)?
Cameron was competent but passionless. On such occasions his insouciance and hauteur conspire against him, almost as if it’s all too much for him. He delivered his rehearsed lines like the PR executive he is but without displaying any of the flamboyance and wit of his final appearance of the season at Prime Minister’s Questions. Perhaps he is at his most comfortable when he has a pack of braying Tory MPs behind him.
Unlike Margaret Thatcher, Cameron seems caught, even trapped, within a class and tradition. And he has always had the structure of the high establishment to support him. “He [Cameron] worked his way up from the inside, floor by floor,” his friend and fellow MP Nicholas Boles has said.
In their different ways, Cameron and Miliband are both ultimate party insiders, representatives of different tribes, yes – one a member of the Old Etonian governing class, the other a Hampstead socialist – but both the product of networks, family contacts and covert associations. Because of this neither has the ability to break free from the pack, as Thatcher and Blair did, taking the people with them on the way to winning resounding mandates.
Last night’s debate made for good television but told us little we didn’t know and changed nothing. And so the jamboree goes on.