Monday 30 December 2013

At His Best When At His Boldest

For Ed Miliband 2013 has been a year of two halves.

The first half was marked by a few big but cautiously defensive announcements. They were the type of proposals that in the past would have conferred on a Labour leader the aura of prime ministerial respectability.

The second half was dominated by acts of daring radicalism that would, again in the recent past, have doomed a Labour leader to a nightmare of turmoil and fatal unpopularity.

Yet at the end of Miliband's first half he faced a mini leadership crisis. By the end of the second he was a more authoritative figure. Miliband, his party and those of us in the media who tend to view politics weighed down by old assumptions, can learn many lessons for 2014 from what happened in 2013.

Let us reflect briefly on the first half of Miliband's year. His two most important proposals related to economic policy and internal party reform.

First, Miliband and Ed Balls announced that they would stick to George Osborne's current spending plans in the aftermath of the election in 2015. Next, Miliband proposed an overhaul of his party's relations with the trade unions.

Both moves had precise echoes with New Labour in the build up to the 1997 election when Blair-Brown announced constraints on public spending and focused on modernising their party.

But while each defensive act from Blair-Brown propelled Labour further ahead in the polls, similar announcements from Miliband had no such galvanising effect.

Instead of praising Miliband for meeting their demands for "responsibility", the chorus of commentators demanded more from him. Osborne also popped up to declare triumphantly that he had won the economic argument and moved his future spending plans further to the right in an attempt to set a new trap.

By the summer holidays Miliband was in trouble, a minor leadership crisis partly hyped up by those internal and external critics he had sought so assiduously to please.

In the second half of the year almost the exact opposite happened. No leader of the opposition in recent decades, including Margaret Thatcher in the late 1970s, has had such an impact in determining government policy. Miliband took risks and broke with convention: acts regarded widely as suicidal for a Labour leader in opposition.

The most dramatic of these was Miliband's decision to vote against military action in Syria. Some in the shadow cabinet claim it all happened by accident and that Miliband was agonised and indecisive in the build-up to the vote.

Maybe that was the case, maybe not. What happened is what matters. One Thursday evening in late August it was Miliband who determined the future of foreign policy and not the prime minister, who was stopped from going to war.

This broke so many orthodoxies: a Labour leader must be seen to be war-like in order to be credible, must not defy the US and must support the hawkish instincts of an incumbent Tory PM. Yet Miliband's defiance has been wholly vindicated by subsequent events in the Middle East, as Barack Obama and David Cameron probably realise.

His conference speech the following month smashed more conventions. Once again he dared to tilt leftwards with a populist price freeze, and developed further his dissection of failing markets. Instead of the speech being a disaster for him he threw his opponents into ideological and strategic disarray.

He went on to make similarly unexpected waves when he challenged the Daily Mail's attack on his father. Recent Labour leaders would probably have invited Paul Dacre in for a cup of coffee as part of a fearful response. Miliband expressed anger and, again wholly against expectation, a mighty editor was fleetingly on the defensive.

The rights and wrongs of his various standout acts of 2013 are the source of much debate, but the dynamics are beyond contention.

When Miliband pulled the old levers, hoping to delight internal and external critics, he became vulnerable and the critics became more contemptuous.

When he challenged orthodoxy, he became such a powerful leader he was determining foreign policy and the coalition's approach to failing markets. Osborne's recent defence of his intervention in the payday loans market made the chancellor sound like a social democrat.

There is an overlooked reason for the dynamics of the second half of Miliband's year beyond his underestimated sense of conviction and selective political courage. The context of Labour's defeat in 2010 is unrecognisably different from when it was previously removed from power in 1979.

After 1979 Labour leapt chaotically leftwards and proceeded to be slaughtered in four elections. The great, much repeated but accurate joke was that parts of the Labour party seemed to think that they had lost in 1979 because they were not leftwing enough. The background against which Miliband leads is almost the opposite.

Blair and Brown did not lose support for being too leftwing. As part of an epic, Shakespearean tragedy Blair has become almost an exile from his country because of his resolute determination to show that a Labour prime minister could work closely with a Republican president in the US.

Brown is in a similar position because of his close relationship with senior bankers, an alliance he sought in order to provide a respectable protective shield for more social democratic policies implemented stealthily.

They stumbled because they tried so hard, in very different ways, to move with what they took to be the unyielding tides of the 1980s.

Miliband is often criticised as being naive for sensing that politics changed after the financial crash in 2008, and following the war in Iraq, but his experience as a leader over the last 12 months suggests he is right.

He would be foolish to assume that defensive caution should play no part in 2014 or that the media can be ignored. In my view the media is as powerful as ever.

Even so, his oscillating fortunes this year suggest he has rare space to continue challenging what is regarded as orthodoxy.

In 2013 when he echoed the policies of the coalition, a government that itself pays too much outdated homage to the 1980s, he became fragile rather than strong.

When he chose to be distinctive he almost ruled the country. The next election will be close but Miliband has cause to note the early signs of an ideological sea change: he is at his strongest when he rides the new waves.

No comments:

Post a Comment