On Ed, I was right (and wrong)

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Ed Miliband The GuardianBy Hopi Sen / @hopisen

Back when the Labour party was in the throes of debating our future leadership, I wrote a series of posts denigrating each of the candidates. It was half thought experiment, half attempt to prove personal independence. The response was generally complimentary (even from the campaign teams, who seemed to take the critique in good heart) and I think that they stand up reasonably well.

That said, reasonably well isn’t good enough. While what I said about Abbott, Balls, Burnham and David Miliband, can be safely consigned to the virtual fish wrappings, to the victor the spoils, and what I wrote about Ed Miliband deserves a little more scrutiny.

Over the weekend, I read Ed’s National Policy Forum speech, and that, combined with the coverage of the last week and talking to various advisers and MPs has given me a sense of where I went wrong, as well as what I got right.

So what did I get wrong? Two big things, I think. First I wrote –

“In order to win Ed has had to assemble the support of union general secretaries, former Brown advisers (No 10 seems to have decamped en masse into the Ed Miliband campaign team) and virtually everyone on the soft left of the party.

In other words, an Ed Miliband leadership will owe a lot of favours…

…As a result, the new leader of the Labour party might well find himself constrained, circumscribed, hemmed in by his supporters and allies.

I dont think there’s any evidence that has come to pass.

Whatever the criticisms of Ed have been seen he was elected, they have been criticisms of him, not of the excessive influence of his supporters in the Leadership campaign. Yes, Neal Lawson still seems to be claiming to be central to everything, but so does Phillip Blond and so do all the other irrepressible self promoters. The unions are waiting to take part in the policy review, as they would under any leader.

More importantly, in his reshuffle, Ed reached out to suporters of his opponents, especially those who supported David Miliband. There was no sign of a retreat to factionalism from the leadership, but a genuine attempt to bring everyone together. So Peter Hain is running the National Policy Forum, with Liam Byrne running the policy review.

As a result, Ed has much more political space to operate in than I expected. I feared a party that would not accept change, instead, we have a party looking for it, demanding it. That’s a very big difference. Ed is essentially untrammeled by the left, and more likely to be attacked from the right.

So I got that wrong.

Yet, while identifying the wrong causes, I seem to have accidentally anticipated the major criticism Ed is getting now:

“…the question about Ed Miliband is – how will he lead? Won’t the boldness and radicalism of his leadership bid prove to be what limits him as leader -binding him to a soft left political strategy?

In other words – Can Ed Miliband lead the party in any direction it doesn’t want to go in already? Could such a platform really be electorally successful?”

Since his election, the challenges to Ed have basically been this critique of his leadership strategy. From the right, there is the critique that the initial political strategy has been left-ish, that there is “drift”, which is cover for meaning “too simplistically left”. From other sources comes the charge that our attack on the cuts and coalition’s economic policies are not strong enough, not direct and challenging enough, that it is “soft”.

Both charges have some validity, as the initial months of Ed’s leadership have not had the cutting edge of a Blair or a Cameron in their intent to define image and strategy. It’s true that we’ve not had Huskies or Clause Four, though Cameron and Blair came to leadership after years in opposition, Ed is doing so after cataclysmic defeat. The challenges are different.

Yet I think this argument misses a key point about what Ed is trying to do, which is to try and address a question I missed entirely over the summer.

The second place I went wrong in all my analysis of the leadership race, from David to Diane, is that I missed the scale of the dislike people felt for the Labour party. Obviously I saw how badly we got beaten up at the polls, but like most of us inside the party, I had a “not me, guv” attitude to this.

It was all someone else’s fault. It was Gordon’s communications failures, or the way we failed to speak out on crime, or the embarrisingly bad Mandelson-Campbell re-union spin tour, which seemed to serve no purpose but to wind up journalists. For others, it was Iraq, or civil liberties, or Heathrow. Whatever it was, most of us in the party recognised that we had lost, but convieniently, we all made a convincing case that it was someone else’s fault.

The leadership campaign strengthened this narrative. Too often, it descended into a proxy war over who was to blame for our defeat, with David Miliband standing in for Tony Blair and his outriders, Ed Balls standing in for the frustated Keynesians and Ed Miliband standing in for the loyal but oft-disappointed and dismayed centre-left.

What I missed, and what I think Ed has grasped since his election, is that it for the electorate it wasn’t one lot or another that was to blame, it was all of us. Voters are not Andrew Rawnsley. The challenge for Labour is that whether Blairite, Brownite, Kinnockite or Atleeist, we’re all in the clarts. Together.

That’s what I get from his NPF speech, and he’s right.

So Ed’s essential point, that Labour, as a whole, needs a major rethink, is more important than I recognised over the summer. I’m reminded by a point made by Phil Cowley, that Labour is in “Universal Discomfort”:

“..it’s true that the two groups southern voters most identify with Labour are benefit claimants and the trade unions, but I’m afraid that’s true of every region of Great Britain. The third group is ‘immigrants’.

Southern voters think that Labour wasted money, but so do voters everywhere. Just one in ten voters thinks that Labour improved public services without much waste.

True, the figure rises to 13% in the north, and is as low as 7% in London and the rest of the south, but to focus on that six point difference is to miss entirely the key finding from the survey: which is that voters everywhere – north, south, east and west – think Labour wasted money on a large scale over the last 13 years.”

This is where Ed is right. When you’ve gone that far down in people’s estimations, the change you need is big, far-ranging. It can’t be carried out in a month, and perhaps not in a year. It will require sustained, long term effort.

As Ed said in Gillingham, while we need to be strong in opposition, the next election will be about what people think about us, not just how much they dislike them. On that score, we’re nowhere near where we need to be.

So I was right to point out that we should not be happy with opinion poll ratings in the 37-40 range (where we are now, hem hem), But I should have said it was not the poll ratings we needed to worry about, it was the internals. The “whose side are you on” questions.

We spent a long time wondering why the Conservatives refused to admit that their brand was contaminated, and that recovery would require more than good photo-ops or a biting press release. That advice applies to us now. That’s where I think Ed’s NPF speech is right.

As leader Ed seems to understand the deep dissatisfaction with Labour in government and seeks to offer something hopeful and fresh in it’s place. He hope that this is the first step to winning a general election.

It’s a first step, but it’s not the journey.

I guess Ed knows this, but I think what is driving media criticism of Ed is that they feel they know why Labour is unpopular and they dont need telling that Labour needs to change. They’ve been saying that for years. Now they’re looking for definition about what that change will actually mean.

It’s all a bit Zen. More accurately, it’s like a Koan. Ed says “If no-one listens, to be heard first be silent” to which the media, listening carefully, asks “But what will you say after the silence?”

So Ed’s challenge is to provide greater definition to what his change stands for, while not providing so much definition he doesn’t seem to be taking the need for change seriously.

In effect he needs to put a big sign up that says, “this is what I will lead on, this is who I am, this is whose side I am on”, while not completely stepping all over the policy review. This is essential so the media can point to it and say “oooh, look, there’s a leader, leading, over there, with the big sign”*

Further, I’d argue (with my New Labourite hat on) that these issues need to be ones that speak far beyond the concerns of the Labour Party, that they offer a contrast not just to the government but to people’s existing negative perceptions of the Labour Pparty, that we’re the party of the lazy, the work-shy and the wasteful.

Personally, I think the answer might lie in three areas – welfare, crime and jobs.

These are three issues that are live now, that are being defined as the policy review takes place, that need a Labour response now, that will define much of this government’s success or failure. More, they’re things that are about what the public cares about, and where there is room for policy creativity and strong contrast with the government.

So, I was wrong about Ed’s internal challenges as our leader, but perhaps right about what is needed to get over the challenges he actually faces. Isn’t that convienient for my own sense of self worth?

* I’m serious about this. I sometimes despair. Paul Waugh, a normally intelligent fellow tweeted on Friday“A “Leader” isn’t tempted. He either does or doesn’t do things”. Blinking heck. That’s straight out of the Yoda school of political leadership, that. Any other normal human emtions Leaders shouldn’t have?

This blog was originally posted here.

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