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Will Ed make it?

A pleasant discussion with the authors of the first book on the new young leader of the Labour Party fails to light at least one person's touchpaper.
Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
18 September 2011

I went along to an ippr discussion about ED: the Milibands and the making of a Labour Leader, the new Biteback political biography of Ed Miliband by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre. It was chaired by the  shrewd Marc Stears who was a student friend of Ed’s at Oxford and is now a Professor of politics there.

It was a strange atmosphere: it wasn’t packed, mainly supporters and friends, there was a confident belief in him but not in his winning. The session did not pulsate with the high-energy prospect of a return to power.

I’d always thought that Ed was the only one running for the leadership who had a chance of winning the next election. The book confirms this. After thirteen years of the negatives New Labour stood for in the eyes of swing voters (let’s start with: lies, wrongfully going to war, correctness and over-surveillance, misconceived targets, marketisation, being in love with big money, embracing the financial bubble, interminable and vicious personal disputes, spin, economic catastrophe, failing to build new homes ...) they had to find someone who could credibly claim that he always thought that in at least one important way they were wrong. Best of all, over Iraq. The book establishes this. Ed has the credibility, if only just, to personify Labour as being a party that can govern differently.

After an over-cautious start, however, the Blairites were preparing to strike him down. Then he demolished their number one media ally, Rupert Murdoch. As Macintyre emphasised, this was a pivotal game-changer for the UK as well as the Labour Party and means Ed will now be the unchallenged leader through to the next election.

The atmosphere in the room was low-key, friendly, serious, as if Ed was in a ghostly way responsible for it himself. It was also unreal. There was no sense of the potentially catastrophic economic meltdown, no mention of the riots across England, no one talked about the national question that the riots pose let alone the electoral earthquake north of the border.

Crisis? What crisis?

“What should Ed say in his speech to Conference?” Stears asked.  He has time for his larger narrative and sense of direction, Mehdi answered - he should talk about jobs and working well with the other Ed who was right about growth.

Hmm. Earlier this year I heard Miliband say Labour needs to call for a better form of capitalism. Excuse my impatience. Perhaps if we wait long enough two will come along at the same time.

My reading of his strategy is this.

  1. It will be four years to the next election. He’s not expecting or even wanting it to be earlier, because
  2. Labour was massively defeated and must appear to be different and
  3. The Coalition must take responsibility for getting it wrong and
  4. Meanwhile, most of his colleagues, especially Balls and Cooper don’t see the need for Labour to change but he can’t have a fight with them as divided parties lose.

This means that although he is significantly to the left of the parliamentary party (which is hardly difficult) his is a conservative, administrative project.

It isn’t even seeking to set the country alight. There seems to be no hope of his even committing himself to reverse Cameron’s marketisation of the NHS - although this is deeply unpopular, was something Cameron promised not to do, and doesn’t save money or help the deficit. As a professional politician Miliband is determined to promise little and mean what he says. But if he can’t promise to save the NHS (see Colin Ley’s bleak but essential prediction) what is the point?

In the past I frequently heard people predict the end of the Labour Party, often members themselves alarmed at splits, rows, manifestos, policies that either alarmed or disappointed them, and loss of public support. Now it is bobbing along with a steady few points lead, there are no convulsions tearing it apart or even threats of anything more than another media spat.

But sitting listening to a serious public discussion by well-informed insiders of an exceptionally able new leader, I had a Cheshire cat moment. Nice face but where is the body?  

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