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Ed Miliband and the "timidity Gestapo"

Caution and a lack of debate at the top of the Labour Party are hampering its fightback; Miliband kn

It hurts to be rejected, especially after a long relationship. Labour is still reeling from the pain of being jilted by the electorate last year. At first, as with any break-up, there was an element of denial. Look! We're ahead in the polls. They want us back! It has taken a while for the dismal realisation that it is all over to set in.

Deeper awareness of how hard it will be to woo back lost voters has been accompanied by rising impatience with Ed Miliband's leadership, hence the eruption of what-iffery around his brother David. The trigger was a leak of the speech the elder Miliband would have given, had he won the top job. For a broken-hearted party, the release of that document was like a sordid one-night stand with an ex. It was a desperate quest for comfort by a faction that is feeling particularly lonely.

Members of Ed's inner circle blame "people who were big in New Labour 15 years ago". They also know that sources quoted in newspapers as "friends of David" are no such thing. Those with a better claim to that title concede that the former foreign secretary feels frustrated but say he has accepted "domestic exile" - withdrawal from front-line politics, for fear of stoking endless speculation about ulterior motives.

Fear and hope

No one in the shadow cabinet is plotting for a change of leader. They are all scarred survivors of the debilitating Blair-Brown wars and, for the time being, inoculated against conspiracy.

That doesn't stop them grumbling. There are two main complaints about Ed. The first is that he isn't performing like a prime minister-in-waiting. He doesn't land enough blows on David Cameron in their weekly Commons jousts; he looks awkward on screen. Some politicians can be coached out of presentational problems. Margaret Thatcher had vocal training to soften her strident tones. George Osborne's voice has dropped half an octave and a portion of its sneer since he became Chancellor. Then again, Gordon Brown's aides toiled in vain to get him to lighten up.

While many Labour MPs worry about Ed's lack of televisual dynamism, they all seem to like him in person, which is not often the case with party leaders. Loyalty more often flows from fear and hope of promotion. Miliband's amiability is, however, connected to the second charge against him: chronic caution. Tony Blair and Cameron defined themselves in opposition by picking fights with their own parties. Miliband is determined not to follow that approach. His aversion to conflict is generally appreciated by MPs but it leaves many wondering what other strategy he has to get noticed. His aides point proudly to the unfulfilled predictions of many media commentators that the party would collapse into civil war. But the price for harmony is paid in lost momentum. There is unity but it is brittle.

One Labour frontbencher talks about the "timidity Gestapo" around the leadership that clamps down on independent thought. Policy ideas or even just ruses to make mischief with the coalition are knocked down with orders to await further instructions. Another shadow minister compares the lack of debate at the top of the party to the experience of being buried alive. The root cause of this stasis is uncertainty at every level about what to defend and what to denounce from the party's legacy in government. Everyone agrees on the need to apologise for something about the New Labour years. Unfortunately, no one can agree what it is.

Did Brown sabotage Blair's good work or did he fail to bury Blairism deep enough? Was the problem a loss of nerve over reform of the state or slavish submission to rampant market forces? Probably a bit of both.

While Miliband takes his time addressing these questions, the Tories gladly supply answers of their own: Labour ran out of money because public spending is all it knows; it takes a Conservative chancellor to pick up the pieces; only major pruning of the state will restore economic confidence and drive recovery. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, has a sturdy defence against these charges: the deficit soared when government revenue collapsed after the global financial crisis. Blame the bankers. Osborne's aggressive cuts - "Too far, too fast" - are cruel, unnecessary and dangerous. The cuts will kill confidence and delay recovery.

This has been the defining argument of the past year and both Eds seem prepared to wait for it to be resolved before setting out an agenda for government. Yet there is every chance the Osborne-Balls grudge match will not be a clear win. There will be no definitive moment when the referee blows the whistle and one party lifts the Competence Cup. In reality, it is shaping up to be a scrappy 1-1 draw. There will be some growth but also stubborn unemployment. Osborne will lean hard on the Office for Budget Responsibility to declare his fiscal targets met, perhaps cooking the books if necessary. Then he will bribe voters in a pre-election Budget. (He learned those tricks shadowing Brown
at the Treasury.)

Jilted party

A Populus poll for the Times on 14 June put Cameron and Osborne 18 points clear of Miliband and Balls on the question of who is more trusted to run the economy. Senior Labour figures worry that the public will credit the Tories with an economic mission accomplished, even in an anaemic recovery. "Osborne will turn around and say, 'We cut the deficit, here's your bonus,'" says one despondent shadow minister. "We need a strategy to head that off and we need it now."

Miliband, at least, recognises that a strategy for the future demands some accommodation with the past. On 13 June, he made a thoughtful speech owning up to Labour's tolerance of irresponsible behaviour at the top and bottom of society. He regretted the failure to nudge people on benefits into work and the unwillingness to restrain greed in the City. It almost sounded like an apology.

Voters expect penitence before they will take a party back and there lies a painful conundrum for Miliband. He cannot set out a new programme for government without defining what was wrong with his party's record - and he can't do that without threatening the fragile unity that is his biggest achievement as leader. That leaves jilted Labour looking sorry most of all for itself.

Rafael Behr is chief political commentator of the New Statesman

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 20 June 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia