Saturday, 29 September 2012

A Leader Of Whom It Can Be Proud

No wonder that the media have to ignore Labour's role as the principal force both for the repatriation of powers from the EU and for a referendum on continuing membership, and no wonder that Boris Johnson's fanzines, the Evening Standard and The Spectator, have to spread transparent nonsense about whipping Labour MPs to vote in favour of same-sex "marriage, when, as David Clark writes:

I got a taste of how established opinion would react to Ed Miliband’s leadership within minutes of his election in Manchester two years ago when I bumped into a News International journalist of my acquaintance at the conference bar. He told me quite abruptly that he “couldn’t care less” who the Labour Party was “foolish” enough to choose as its leader.

At a basic level he was telling the truth: this was not someone with Labour’s best interests at heart. But the finger-jabbing aggression of his body language suggested something else. This person cared very much and he wasn’t just disappointed by the result; he was personally affronted. The subtext of his response could not have been clearer – “How dare you think that politics can be different?”

A consensus developed in the 1990s about where the limits of feasible change lie in British politics. It defined the boundaries of acceptable ideological difference and embraced a set of assumptions about what parties had to do to win elections. They had to be against raising the top rate of tax, put our ‘wealth creating’ financial elite on a pedestal, dismiss concerns about inequality as the politics of envy, accept that markets are superior to governments, adopt a deferential attitude to America and win the approval of Rupert Murdoch.

News International did more than anyone else to codify and enforce the new rules of the game, but it didn’t pluck them out of thin air. They reflected genuine electoral pressures with their origins in the battles of the 1980s and the setbacks experienced by the left. And as Steve Akehurst pointed out yesterday, they were adopted by a new caste of political technicians who eventually secured a dominant role in all three of the main political parties and equated the new orthodoxy with professionalism and success. Although Labour initially resisted, it eventually succumbed in the face of repeated defeat. New Labour was the result.

The reason why Ed Miliband’s leadership victory was so provocative and controversial is that he won by urging Labour to break free of those constraints. While his brother insisted that the established rulebook would continue to apply, the younger Miliband said that the party should once again care enough about inequality to want to do something about it, that the claims of market supremacy should be properly challenged, that the better off should pay their fare share of tax whether they liked it or not and that Britain’s alliance with America should be a means not an end.

The reaction among the technicians and like-minded parts of the media to Miliband’s victory was one of fury that Labour had slipped the leash, hence my encounter at the bar. They considered it a personal humiliation that their preferred candidate had lost and set out to right what they saw as a grievous wrong. Their approach was passive-aggressive in public, but behind the scenes they were on full attack mode. Labour was rudderless, it had no ‘narrative’ (a favoured buzzword of the technicians) and was too far to the left. Its leader was failing to make a connection with voters or land a punch on David Cameron at PMQs. A successful leadership challenge to restore the natural order of our political universe was surely only a matter of time.

The fact that Miliband has come through all of this to make himself today the most secure of the three party leaders is a huge testament to his skill, nerve and perseverance. A lesser person would have folded a long ago and sought to buy off dissent by giving in to the dissenters. But Miliband decided to suffer the brickbats and forge ahead on his own terms.

Remember, Miliband has had precious little support from the establishment of his own party which, until the spring of this year, remained completely unreconciled to his leadership. From the small insurgent band of his campaign team, he has built an effective and clear-minded private office; he has changed the face of the Shadow Cabinet, bringing in talent like Chuka Umunna, Rachel Reeves and Jon Cruddas; he has set the agenda on phone hacking, banking reform and the budget; and he has chalked up a clear and consistent lead in the polls, along with solid gains, North and South, in the local elections.

From the wreckage of a party that was organisationally and politically broken two years ago, Miliband has forged an effective opposition that has a real chance to succeed at the next election. More impressive still is the fact that he has achieved all of this without compromising the radicalism of his vision.

In some senses politicians are defined by the enemies they pick. It has always been an article of faith among the technicians that this must involve beating up the weak to impress the strong. So Tony Blair’s targets of choice were welfare recipients, a battered trade union movement, low paid public sector workers and asylum seekers. As a friend of mine (who will not thank me to remind him) once asked: “When is Blair going to pick on someone his own size?” Compare that to the people Miliband has been willing to take on: the Labour establishment, Rupert Murdoch, predator capitalists and the City of London. Miliband has the courage to be David against Goliath. Blair was always Goliath’s little helper.

I don’t doubt that Miliband’s leadership remains a work in progress and that there are areas where he needs to carry on improving. He needs to find a way to project himself more effectively to the British people and convince them of his leadership qualities. Part of the reason is that he rejects the leadership style of contrived machismo favoured by the technicians and chooses instead to win colleagues round through a process of persuasion. That means people often don’t see the real toughness that lies beneath. But against those of us who urged him to break more crockery in his efforts to reshape Labour, Miliband has been proved right. His reward is a party that is happier and more united than at any similar point in its history.

Against the predictions of failure and disintegration of two years ago, Miliband returns to Manchester with the doubters confounded. He has put Labour back on its feet and he has done it his way. These are all reasons why Labour should be grateful to have a courageous, principled and thoughtful leader of whom it can be proud.

1 comment:

  1. We will see what happens after he becomes Prime Minister, which I agree is looking increasingly likely.

    Its hard for an Opposition Leader to have a big effect. You have the recent example of Jack Layton in Canada, but he started as a third party leader and the situation is a little different since third parties are simply more dependent on their leaders to get favorable attention (and handle the negotiations when there is a hung parliament). With Labour in the UK, Kinnock gets favorable notice but the party was in such bad shape in the mid-1980s that just being able to run a professional election campaign and not lose in a landslide was considered to be impressive. Atlee established Labour's credibility before 1945 in government, not opposition.

    Favorable mention to the two Tory PMs who lost in landslide elections, then got the party back to essentially draws in the next election. That this was harder than it looks was shown by the failure to repeat this after 1997 (maybe Major should have stayed on as leader?). But again a very different situation. Incidentally Labour after 2010 got a percentage of the vote almost as low as in 1983 but was probably in better shape as a party due to the failure of the Tories to close the deal in the election or in government.