Ed Miliband looks awkward in most pictures. He is a geek, more interested in policy detail than grand claims. He would rather do a Rubik’s cube than watch football. He’s not the guy you want to have a pint with. In fact you won’t even find him in a pub holding a pint. People don’t know what he stands for. And he looks awful when pictured trying to eat a sandwich.
All of these statements are broadly true. Last week when he was pictured holding a copy of the Sun newspaper, the Labour leader only served to reinforce the negative stereotypes: that he’s no different from the rest; he doesn’t look Prime Ministerial enough; he’s craven to the same vested interests he claims to be taking on. Fair criticisms, all of them.
But all this raises a broader point I want to address, one that even the Labour leadership seem incapable of addressing: why exactly should someone support Miliband? Why support this guy as leader? And if you’re on the left, why not instead vote Green? Well, here is my response.
Ask Ed Miliband what issue really animates him and drives his politics, the answer will almost certainly be: inequality. He understands that growing wealth inequality between the rich and poor is corrosive to society, and he realises that Labour didn’t do enough when they were in power.
But to really understand Miliband requires understanding how he works. Ed Miliband is a consensus-seeker. He doesn’t like confrontation, prefers not to pick fights and likes to build a broad tent. This trait is a boon in a party that has traditionally been riven by factionalism and is liable to start a circular firing squad at any given opportunity. Everyone in Westminster confidently predicted Labour would start massive infighting after being driven out of power in 2010, but it is a testament to Miliband’s hard work that the party has been kept together.
But this consensus-seeking attitude has its down-side too: Miliband doesn’t look like a strong-man on stage, he doesn’t act ruthlessly, and his bravery in apologising when he’s made a bad judgement (over the Sun picture for example) is spun by the newspapers as weakness. This problem is compounded by his unwillingness to do any ‘stunts’ (remember Cameron’s “hug a hoodie” or riding with huskies?) to challenge perceptions. He knows the media loves stunts, but also that he would look even more awkward doing them.
This makes it difficult to sell him to a jaded electorate, but doesn’t mean he is devoid of ideas. The real reason Miliband matters, and why the progressive left need him as Prime Minister, is because he is far more radical than any Labour leader in over a generation. Unlike most people, I read his speeches. If you don’t believe me, try Duncan Weldon (now of Newsnight).
The brief summary goes like this: Miliband says that since the days of Thatcher, the neo-liberal market model has only exacerbated the rich-poor divide and the economy has stopped working for middle-income and poorer workers. This isn’t just a British problem but also an American one, which deregulated and boosted its financial sector in tandem with the UK. Miliband wants to challenge this by upending how the economy works for people.
For many on the left, this all seems obvious. But doesn’t just challenge the establishment consensus, it also requires some pretty radical plans. But the intellectual heavy-lifting and the will is already there, the big policies will come over the next year as policy commissions wind up their work. There will be much more meat on the bones (though the party has already unveiled far more policy than any opposition at this point).
This policy stuff matters, not only because it represents a break from the past but because it will have huge consequences. And it frustrates me how many people lightly dismiss it because they can’t comprehend Miliband or think he’s too weak. Furthermore, he has united the party around a direction that may survive even if he doesn’t.
Of course, for the radical left this is not enough. For them it will never be enough.
The Green party for example campaigns nationally against all cuts to spending, but when they won control of Brighton and Hove council (their first), they implemented cuts just like Labour councils. The alternative would have been to set an illegal budget and cede control to Eric Pickles. They did the very thing they oppose, nationally, because it’s easy to make promises when you don’t expect to be in power. If the Green party were to ever be in government, they would split apart immediately like the Lib Dems. It’s easy to claim you are an alternative to the establishment when your ideals don’t have to come into contact with a diverse electorate.
The case for Ed Miliband isn’t that he is the least worst candidate, it’s that there aren’t many in Westminster who understand the scale of the challenge Britain faces in weaning itself off Thatcherism. Miliband is the only serious politician trying to work against it, which is why much of the press is so ideologically opposed to him.
Of course Miliband doesn’t have the charisma or presence of Blair. But many of the same people who criticised the latter for being full of gimmicks and no real substance now criticise Miliband for the opposite. I’d rather have a geek running the country than a showman.