Show Hide image

Ed can’t afford to miss this open goal

A recent 8-point lead over the Tories, sharing public feeling over the VAT increase and bankers’ pay

One of my most enduring football memories, as a (lapsed) Liverpool fan, is of a Premier League match between Liverpool and Aston Villa in September 1992. The Villa defence missed a long clearance from Liverpool's goalkeeper, David James, and the ball bounced into the path of the striker Ronny Rosenthal. The Israeli skipped around the Villa goalkeeper, found himself facing an empty net, ten yards out, and . . . slammed the ball against the crossbar.

Rosenthal's promising career never recovered from that humiliating miss in front of an open goal. Can Ed Miliband avoid the fate of "Rocket Ronny" in 2011? Open goals abound in the land of coalition politics. From unpopular VAT hikes and obscene bank bonuses to ill-conceived and rushed NHS reorganisations, the various U-turns, volte-faces and compromises of this Tory-led government have left the Labour leader with the ball at his feet and the goalkeeper out of position.

Miliband has had a promising start to the new year - and the shrewd appointment of Tom Baldwin, formerly of the Times, and Bob Roberts, formerly of the Daily Mirror, as his directors of strategy and media, respectively, has added guile and energy to Team Ed. "He [Baldwin] might be a Blairite and a friend of Alastair Campbell," says a shadow minister on the left of the party, "but he knows how to take the fight to the Tories."

The bonus onus

Take VAT. With the help of his new advisers, Miliband had finessed a new attack line in time for the tax hike on 4 January. He described the new 20 per cent rate as the "wrong tax at the wrong time", accused George Osborne of treating the British public "like fools" and thereby dominated much of the media coverage of the VAT rise. This enabled the Labour leader to move the national economic debate from dry discussions about deficits on to the impact of coalition policies on ordinary, hard-working families squeezed by rising prices.

Then there are bank bonuses, perhaps the most toxic issue in British public life since the invasion of Iraq in 2003. With the bankers' bonus season approaching, Miliband used his first press conference of 2011 to denounce multimillion-pound payouts in the Square Mile and call for a reintroduction of Labour's bonus tax. "It is unfair and it is the wrong economic judgement to be cutting taxes for the banks at a time when everybody else is paying more," he said. With the Prime Minister unwilling to "micromanage" the banks, such language from the Labour leader will resonate with voters. (Miliband could, however, have been better prepared for the inevitable question from the assembled hacks: how much would he want the bonus of RBS's chief executive, Stephen Hester, to be?)

This isn't just about legislation. Words matter. During his appearance before the Treasury select committee on 11 January, Bob Diamond, chief executive of Barclays, described by the former business secretary Lord Mandelson last year as "the unacceptable face of banking", was asked if the Prime Minister or the Chancellor had urged him to "show restraint" over his bonus (reported to be as much as £8m this year). "They have not," he replied.

So much for the Chancellor's claim that "We are all in this together" or the Deputy Prime Minister's claim that this government would not "stand idly" as the banks get away "scot-free" with taxpayer-backed bonuses. It is difficult to disagree with the verdict of the TUC's general secretary, Brendan Barber: "Ministers have run up the white flag and unconditionally surrendered to the banks."

The failure of the coalition to restrict or regulate bankers' pay could provide endless opportunities for Miliband and his gaffe-prone shadow chancellor, Alan Johnson, to ridicule and castigate senior coalition ministers. I'm told by a source close to the leader that Miliband plans to "ramp up" the issue of bank bonuses in the coming weeks and will use his keynote speech to the Fabian Society on 15 January not just to reiterate his values and ideals but to set out his political priorities for 2011.

Miliband has been lucky, too. His former immigration spokesman Phil Woolas's shameless tactics in Oldham East and Saddleworth during the last general election campaign, and subsequent ejection from Parliament, have offered a well-timed opportunity for Labour to give the coalition and, in particular, Nick Clegg, a thrashing in the by-election on 13 January - the first significant electoral test of the coalition's popularity.

Don't be complacent

Meanwhile, the most recent ComRes poll for the Independent, published on 11 January, showed that Labour had opened up an 8-point lead over the Conservatives (42-34). Not bad for a party that slumped to 29 per cent of the vote less than nine months ago.

Team Ed, however, should not be complacent. The next general election is a long way off. For now, Miliband has to decide how closely to support the anti-government protests and strikes that will come to dominate the national debate in 2011, and how vigorously to campaign for a "Yes" vote in the electoral-reform referendum in May. Clegg and the Lib Dems have staked much on the referendum; it remains an issue on which the Parliamentary Labour Party itself is deeply divided. A victory for the pro-AV campaign would boost the morale and standing of the Lib Dems and perhaps shore up an increasingly rickety coalition.

Ideologically, organisationally and financially, the post-Blair, post-Brown Labour Party is still in bad shape. But to dismiss Miliband himself as a failure as leader, as centre-right commentators and Blairite backbenchers tend to do, is bizarre when the only metrics we have (by-elections, opinion polls, increasing numbers of party members) suggest that Labour is on the road to recovery.

Open goals are hard to miss - and, if missed, hard to excuse. David Cameron failed to win a Commons majority, despite being up against an unpopular Labour premier who had just presided over the worst recession in living memory. But he made it through the door of No 10 and has since become a confident and nimble Prime Minister.

Nonetheless, questions remain over the unity and durability of this Tory-led coalition. In 2011, Miliband must be ready to seize any and every opportunity to pester, harass and torment Cameron and co. The Labour leader cannot afford to miss the target.

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

This article first appeared in the 17 January 2011 issue of the New Statesman, War on WikiLeaks