What Miliband has learnt from Thatcher
Ed Miliband could be excused for indulging in some comfort television. He has returned from honeymoon to find himself torn to shreds in the press, put on probation by anonymous ‘Blairite’ ministers and humiliated by David Cameron in parliament, and his relationship with his brother is under the microscope again. But if Miliband were to flop down on the sofa, he might find salvation — or at least the hope of it — on DVD.
As someone who grew up in immersed in politics on both sides of the Atlantic, Miliband is naturally a fan of The West Wing. This US drama charts the presidency of Jed Bartlet, an academic turned politician, and is a paean to the virtue of government. Underpinning it is the belief that the world would be a better place if it was run by high-minded, educated lefties like Miliband.
One of Miliband’s favourite episodes is called ‘Let Bartlet be Bartlet’. In it, the Democratic president f inds his standing plummeting as he runs away from his principles in order to pursue a series of small-bore initiatives. When he decides to be true to his convictions, his poll ratings begin to rise. It doesn’t take much to see why the episode appeals to Miliband. He is even given to quoting lines from it to his staff. At one level, the plot is Hollywood fantasy; if only politicians were more left-wing the public would rally to them. But the lesson that Miliband takes from it is that the electorate can sniff out a fake: nothing is more damaging to a politician than the stench of artifice.
Just consider Ed Miliband’s political patron, Gordon Brown, who always feared that he was too left-wing and Scottish for middle England. The recently leaked ‘Ed Balls files’, which sketch out the plan for Brown’s time in office, reveal just how much energy was put into this problem. One memo from the then Chancellor is particularly revealing: ‘Who is Brown? I have No. publications ready to be completged (sic). What I stand For Pamphlet, My Idea of Britain, Heroes.’
Brown’s unwillingness to say who he was and what he believed quickly reduced his premiership to a series of meaningless gimmicks. His idea of Britain turned out to be nothing more than a series of speeches where he listed all the books he had read recently on the subject, making sure to include a few beloved by conservatives to
reassure newspaper proprietors. The public smelt a large, whiskered rat.
Miliband himself was acutely aware of Brown’s failings. Peter Mandelson writes in his memoir that ‘Ed’s frequent criticism to me about Gordon as PM was that he didn’t say and do what he really believed, that he was always trapped between his personal instincts and what he felt he could get away with, and that this was why people had such a negative perception of him.’
But in the opening months of his leadership, Miliband has also failed to stand by his principles. He was convinced that, having won the leadership by the narrowest of mar
Ed isn’t going to be a triangulator in the Blair-Clinton mould, attacking welfare scroungers while defending the welfare state gins — he was defeated in two of the three sections of Labour’s electoral college — he needed to reassure his party.
So rather than concentrating on connecting with the public, he focused on avoiding any statement or policy that might offend one of the Labour factions. The most fluent candidate in the leadership race suddenly seemed to be struggling for something to say. Friends talked constantly, and apologetically, about what he would do once he had the party behind him. Others wondered where the candidate that they had backed had gone.
Miliband’s team has woken up to this problem—and not a moment too soon.
There is now an acceptance that he needs to take the country with him and the party will follow. As Miliband embarks on this new strategy, I understand that he has an unlikely role model: Margaret Thatcher. He has long been intrigued by how the Iron Lady transformed her country — and with it, the notion of the centre ground of British politics. He aspires to do the same. The challenge for him, he believes, is to move ‘the common sense of the age’ in the same way that The Lady did.
As Miliband also points out, Thatcher was the last leader to take a party from opposition to government in just one term. He has resolved that the only way he can do this is to confront head-on the issues that cost Labour the last election: welfare, immigration and the waste of taxpayers’ money. Monday’s speech, in which he talked about returning the welfare state to the contributory principles of its founding, was an example of how he plans to approach this challenge. He isn’t going to be a triangulator in the Blair-Clinton mould, attacking welfare scroungers while defending the welfare state. Rather, he is going to try and carve out a position that moves beyond the politics of the 1990s. This is a risky strategy and one that will come in for much criticism. But it is Labour’s best — and perhaps only — hope of returning to office at the next election, given that David Cameron and the coalition are camped so firmly on the centre ground.
When Ed Miliband was thinking about running for the Labour leadership, he told his political confidants that he wanted to do so because he rejected the idea that the only way that Labour could win was by being as right-wing as it could be while still being on the left. He wanted to create a new paradigm.
This approach may well fail. Miliband is almost certainly to the left of the public. People might be scared of what he stands for. An honesty policy could have a different effect on voters to Brown’s cynical positioning, while bringing about the same result. But what is certain is that if he follows the Brown approach, he will lose. If they want to have even a chance of victory, the Labour party has to let Miliband be Miliband.
‘Pick a size — Daddy Bear, Mummy Bear or Baby Bear.’
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the spectator | 18 June 2011 | www.spectator.co.uk