Ed Miliband has been getting a lot of flak today over his handling of strike action – much of it justified. Tactically, it’s understandable that Ed Miliband chose to oppose the strikes. He’s clearly keen to avoid the Red Ed tag resurfacing (something which is said to influence his opinion on who should be Labour’s next General Secretary), and his opposition to the strikes – in an attempt to place himself in the side of parents – looked potentially astute.
It also defined Ed against much of the Labour movement – exactly the kind of tactical positioning that Ed was supposed to be moving Labour beyond. It was the tactics of “the party and the unions won’t like it so it’s the right thing to do”. It was the tactics of Blair. It won elections once, but it’s hardly the new politics.
Yet tactics are only any good if they are grounded in something deeper. Something moral. And while Ed’s stance may have seemed the safest option, if he doesn’t have the conviction to see it through, it runs the risk of being muddled at best, and ruinous at worst. If you choose to go against your natural political impulses then you must be ruthless, and wrap yourself in that opposition. You can’t retreat into platitudes, soundbites or two-dimensional responses. Your ideas will be challenged – they must be fully formed.
Let’s take his BBC interview from this afternoon, which has already gone viral, due to Ed’s “performance”. It was cringeworthy viewing of the highest order. It evoked the clumsy attempts of the Brown years. It’s a video nasty to rival Brown on expenses and Cameron’s Gay Times interview. Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman called it unbelieveably awful, wooden, repetitive and weird. LabourList regular Emma Burnell (who volunteered for Ed in the leadership contest) argued that it looked like a hostage video. It was dire. As Shane Greer has noted, the tactic if repeating the same answer over and over – in the assumption that you agreed “line” will be used – would have worked two years ago. Now, the whole video will be released online, and the desperate line-ness of your message will be revealed. To coin a phrase, it was an analogue answer in a digital age.
The problem is that Ed doesn’t have a position on these strikes, he has the edifice of a position. A rehearsed one-liner, behind which lies (for all we can tell) nothing. Sure, he wants the negotiations to continue. That’s a plausible argument. Except Ed Miliband surely knows that sometimes negotiations are going nowhere, and one side is playing the other for a fool. Teachers are being ordered to pay more for less, and work longer for the privilege. The argument that public sector pensions are unaffordable is collapsing, and yet Danny Alexander chose to pre-empt negotiations by issuing a fait accompli. And still Miliband says negotiations should go on.
Did the same rules apply during the coalition negotiations, when Labour walked away from negotiations – mindful that the Lib Dems weren’t negotiating in good face? Miliband was on Labour’s negotiating team – surely if he thought negotiations should have continued to the bitter end we would have heard about it by now.
The very real risk is that by desperately trying not to look like a union stooge, Miliband has run towards the mid-market tabloids and risks looking like their stooge instead. Except they have no interest in, nor love for, Labour or Miliband. By attempting clumsy triangulation, but without conviction, Miliband has kept no-one happy.
And he’ll still be called Red Ed anyway, so what was the point?