By spending this week out of the limelight, rather than starting the year spelling out a vision and taking the fight to the Tories, Ed has allowed this vacuum to become filled with all sorts of political detritus – Maurice Glasman’s musings, Diane Abbott’s tweets and today, some subtle spin from the Guardian over Jim Murphy’s plans for defence cuts.
The real problem though is that the Ed Mili-vacuum isn’t a new phenomena. It’s something that has existed for some time, and has been specifically cultivated. It’s not that there is no plan. Oh no. This is the plan. The blank sheet of paper is deliberate. Ed has no plans to write anything on it. And his style of “Zen Socialism” means he won’t change his plans when they don’t seem to be working. Which, to be honest, they aren’t.
Perhaps he’s so zen about how things are going that he’s ignoring the maelstrom of advice that is swirling around him. Considering the conflicting nature (and varied quality) of that advice, I can understand that. But undaunted, I have two more bits of advice for Ed on how he can fill his vacuum, before it consumes the news cycle – and his leadership – for good.
Give us something to cheer for
When someone asks for Ed Miliband’s big idea, what he’d do if he were PM, or what he’d cut, I don’t really know what to say. Considering the amount of time I spend pontificating about the Labour Party, the suggests that many other people might be similarly lacking in answers.
There has been a conscious strategy to keep Labour’s policy agenda blank, in the belief that any policy announcements (and especially spending commitments) would create a hostage to fortune. That may be right, but having no policies means that we have nothing to say and Labour members and supporters have nothing to get excited about.
No-one wants the 2015 manifesto sent to the printers three years early. But would we would like are a few indicative policies, flagship ideas that define what Labour in 2012 is about and around which the rest of our policies can be shaped. Labour’s 22 policy reviews are a Byzantine and over-complicated mess. Ed needs to cut through them with some simple ideas. If he shows leadership on that, then maybe the energy that Lord Glasman believes (rightly) is missing, will return.
While I was back in the North East for Christmas I noticed that Ed Miliband seems to have acquired a new nickname – “Mr Anonymous”. Wherever I went that’s what people seemed to be calling him.
Again, that seems to stem from a deliberate strategy – that the leader should be somewhat aloof, and apart from the day to day hurly burly of politics. Instead he should intervene at the time of his choosing and on the subject of his choosing. Yet when 18 months after the leadership election, the doorstep response to Miliband is still either “Who?” or “The guy who beat his brother?”, then the current strategy clearly isn’t working.
Instead, Ed should be taking every opportunity to get noticed by the media. Daytime TV, press conferences, set piece speeches – as many as he can do. What will he say? Well he could flesh out some of those flagship policies I mentioned above, or talk about his personal story – or even just ad-lib. He’s an engaging character, and likeable – his Q&A at conference was far better than his conference speech – so he should play to his strengths.
Being aloof and distant as a leader is a luxury afforded to those who are already defined, a position I sincerely hope Ed Miliband doesn’t believe he’s already reached. If Miliband’s current polling levels are how he’s defined by the public long term (which I doubt) then we’re in real trouble.