The case against… Ed Miliband

A brief series where, for my own amusement (and possibly ensuring I never work for the Labour Party again), I set out the case against each of the Leadership candidates. The eleventh commandment of internal elections is “Never speak ill of a fellow party member”. It gets broken just as regularly as the other ten, but I shall try to be constructive, not merely critical.

Ed Miliband. First off, the lads got guts. Can’t be easy deciding to run for leader.

Forget that the leading candidate was his brother, that’s just psychodrama, better suited to a Andrew Rawnsley sequel than hard headed political analysis.

No, Ed Miliband’s real problem was that it was hard to see what ideological and political space a putative Ed Miliband campaign could occupy.

After all, here’s a man whose entire professional life has been spent at the service of New Labour (Brown variant), a Treasury special adviser who got a safe seat (though he had to fight for it), and then a rapidly promoted golden child charged with developing the policy agenda for a fourth Labour term.

Not much space for building a new political movement with that CV. Jon Cruddas he ain’t.

But he did it.

Of course, there were those who saw him as a possible leader some time ago. They saw in him a personally engaging man and a potential candidate who believes passionately in social democratic values, someone not afraid of givign the Labour party a bit of that old time religion that inspires and lifts and causes the believers to shout hallelujah.

But for his old muckers in spaddery and Cabinet the Ed Miliband who has emerged over the last few months – the Iraq war oppossin’, New Labour attackin’, Union lovin, ‘  Manifesto slammin’ Miliband – has come as a shock, and not a pleasant one.

These differences can be overstated. As the reliably centrist Luke Akehurst has said, Ed Miliband is committed to Trident.  He is basically yet another moderate Sweden adoring social democrat. If Ed Miliband is positioned to the left of the other credible candidates, it’s by a notch, not a country mile.

So you might be suprised to discover that despite my own flaming centrism, I don’t think the case against Ed Miliband can be built around perceived leftism.

If that was the case, then any candidate who ever tacked one way to get selected and another to get elected would be verboten. Elections are for winning, and I don’t blame the younger Miliband for doing what he needs to to win.

No, the case against Ed Miliband is built on the question of what happens after he wins.

The energy and drive in Ed Miliband’s campaign comes from his passionate call for a return to Labour values.  Specific policy pledges are part of that (Living wage, and so on) but it’s stylistic too.

Ed Milband is the candidate of votes at conference, more consultation, more internal democracy, more of a voice for the unions in policy making and a more consultative, collaborative leadership style.  He’s been courageous and bold in setting that agenda. (I think it’s because it’s what he really believes, freed of the constraints of subservience to patrons.)

As Luke says, this means Ed is the candidate acceptable to everyone. That is an ambiguous position. It has a lot of negatives to it.

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.

Well, so does any leader, you might say. True enough. But the Leader of the Labour party in opposition is remarkably weak, structurally. They don’t control the shadow cabinet, they don’t control the national executive, they don’t even control Conference – even Tony Blair wouldn’t have got new clause four without bringing John Prescott and the Unions with him.

And here’s the rub. The party hierachy, the unions, the office of Deputy Leader are all in a very different place than they were in 1994.

It’s not that they’re more left or right wing*, it’s that they’re more confident, more assertive, more willing to make use of their rights and powers.

We haven’t lost three elections in a row. Nor, unlike the eighties, is there an obvious, internal radical force to unite the soft left and right against. Derek Simpson is not Derek Hatton. Compass is not Militant.

Ed Miliband as  leader of the Labour party will largely owe his election to people who rather agree with Unite and Compass. He’s acceptable to everyone. Equally, he’s confronted no-one.**

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

So 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?

It’s easy to promise votes at conference, but what happens when you lose?Imagine Ed Miliband, two years hence. He believes that without a clear policy on subject X , he can’t win the general election.  His advisers tell him that the unions are dead against, and the Conference vote will certainly be lost.  What then?

In short, the case against Ed Miliband is that even if he is personally bold,  his political strategy means he will end up not being a Leader, but a figurehead for the desires of a Party he cannot master.

Now there are two counter arguments here.

First, any Labour leader would be constrained. Tony Blair was, and John Smith, and Neil Kinnock. At least Ed Miliband would have the benefit of warm, close relations – and the ablity to persuade. That’s true.

But other candidates will have clearer mandates to lead. Whether Ed Balls or Andy Burnham, they can point to an agenda that is their own. They could use the power to use a referendum of membership to go around opposition on key policy issues. Ed’s agenda is that of the soft left centre of the party, and it’s hard to see how he can back away from that agenda now.

The second argument is that Ed’s soft left political position could well be popular. New Labour is as much of the past as Militant or the CLPD, and the party needs to change- reach out and renew. Issues that Ed has touched on, often mocked as intelligensia issues, are really touchstones for those we’ve alienated that will help us renew. Again, this is true.

I think a social democrat, soft left strategy will be popular.

I’m just not sure it’ll be popular enough. It will be too easy for us to take pleasure in being at 37-40 in mid term polls, when we will need more to secure a majority, or even to force the Lib Dems to deal with us***.

Being in the high thirties will feel like success – we’ll win back lots of councils and Scotland, and probably London. But will it be enough?

We’ve fought a lot of elections under Soft left banners. Some of Ed Miliband’s team have been key advisers in such fights.

We usually lost.

Why would it be different with Ed?

* Is Harriet Harman more left wing than John Prescott? No, she has a different policy emphasis)

**An exception: He’s confronted ex-leaders, but that doesn’t count. They won’t fight back!

***40%would be enough to secure a majority under current boundaries and no AV. But I’m assuming some swingback from a midterm peak, and that boundary changes will hurt Labour


I’m doing this series in the order of total MP and CLP nominations, I’ve done David Miliband, next up is Andy Burnham, then Diane Abbott and  Ed Balls next.

31 Responses to “The case against… Ed Miliband”

  1. hopisen

    Nope, that’s their job.

    (More honestly, it’s just take way to much time)

  2. Alan Ji

    Brian Hughes @ July 27, 2010 at 6:14 pm
    “What is or was CPLD?”

    If you don’t know you don’t need to know.

    Something it has in common with Rajani Palme Dutt.

  3. Nick

    Not so convinced about this one. I think the trouble is that when you say that soft left / social democratic ideas might not be popular enough, that is fair enough, but you leave unsaid what agenda you DO think would be popular enough for a 40%+ vote share. I’m not really convinced that there is one to be honest.

    That’s not to say that there isn’t a case against him of course, I’m just not convinced this is it.

  4. Edward Carlsson Browne

    I actually think that 37-40% is enough for now. Not for the next general election, necessarily, although it’s worth remembering that Blair ‘s high-point was 43.2% in 1997 – boundary changes will make it harder, but a majority on 39% will be far from impossible even then.

    However, unless he’s an astonishingly good leader and can destroy the coalition so utterly we have an election within two years (in which case worries about poll numbers are irrelevant) winning back Scotland and local councils is the main thing Labour needs to do. The Lib Dems have made vast strides in local councils in the past decade, such that they control places like Sheffield and Newcastle. Wipe them out there and you destroy their base camp for another general election assault. And when you aren’t defending against the Lib Dems, the situation gets simpler. You can let local candidates appeal to northern heartlands and concentrate on winning back marginals further south.

    Further to that, I’d also like to see evidence that the ceiling for a soft left approach is 40%. I could just as well speculate that times have changed since 1997 and the limit for a Blairite approach is now 36%.

    I also think you might be drawing the wrong lessons from him being something for everyone. Yes, he has support from every wing of the party, but he hasn’t actually promised very much substantive to anyone – he’s distanced himself from the last government, but not put forward any new initiatives of great importance.

    That gives him a lot of latitude. Having got the support of all wings, he can put forward a package with a little for everyone. And still have a lot of room for the centrism that may or may not be necessary to win a general election.

    If he’d made major concessions, it’d be different – he’d have to either piss off his supporters or make it look like he was a creature of the soft left/the unions/the pod people from the planet Neptune/A. N. other Daily Mail hate figure. But as he hasn’t, there’s nothing binding him.

    Especially as it’s the soft left. If the soft left put up with a decade of Blair, it will put up with Ed Miliband ignoring them for electoral gain.

    I actually think his weakness is the few remaining Blairite ultras. They can’t plot for toffee and they don’t command much of a bloc of support, but they do know how to leak. My major worry with Ed Miliband is that they’ll take a dislike to him and help to build media narratives that he’s an unelectable leftie. See also Labour Uncut – although I’ll grant that’s just the right, rather than the Blairites.

    • hopisen

      “Further to that, I’d also like to see evidence that the ceiling for a soft left approach is 40%. I could just as well speculate that times have changed since 1997 and the limit for a Blairite approach is now 36%.”

      Of course it’s speculation – I’ve no idea what the limit of support for any political strategy is!

      After all, that depends on our opponents as well as us – and the centre changes over time.

      But it strikes me that a strategy aimed squarely at the sweet spot of the Labour party is unlikely to also reach the sweet spot of the country as a whole. Much as i love the Labour party, I have to accept that large numbers feel differently.

      (so for example, Crime appears to have disappeared as an issue in this leadership campaign, even though lots of key voters rate it as a very important issue)

      • Edward Carlsson Browne

        I agree that the Labour Party is not representative of the country as a whole and that’s doubly true of the activists who are the audience of much of the campaign.

        That said, I don’t think it’s necessarily as simple as saying that the members of the Labour Party are to the left or the right of the country.

        A leftward swing on civil liberties would be broadly popular, for example – especially since we’d still be able to attack the coalition on issues like CCTV where they have tendencies towards the moron-libertarian.

        A leftward swing on prisons would probably be less popular (although a good idea for sound fiscal reasons, if there’s a way to get it past the electorate).

        And then there are some issues that are of great interest to Labour Party members but not to the public (except when the editorial pages of the right-wing press do their best to make it of intetest) or vice versa.

        Thinking of it as a soft left strategy is probably to oversimplify a little. Some soft left policies are popular, some aren’t. The challenge for a leader taking that route is to emphasise the popular ones and shut up about/diverge from the less popular ones.

  5. CS Clark

    That’s a very good question to end on. I think the short answer is Cameron – his little forays into what he imagines liberalism to be are changing the centre terrain but at the same time he is not leaving gaps on the right that can be filled by Labour. A slightly longer answer would dwell on whether Ed M’s sense of boldness is the only chance to break 40 in the next five years – can a traditional triangulation from David M do anything other than a little better?

  6. tim f

    I’ve decided by now that I’ll be giving my first preference to Balls, but if I was voting for Ed Miliband, this post would be the case for, not against!

    I do think EM will win, though, and I’ll be preffing him ahead of DM, certainly.

  7. Richard Blogger

    I’m a miserable git, so I welcome the argument against.

    But more pragmatically, if you know your weaknesses then you can take action to correct them. So you are doing the candidates a favour.

  8. John Rentoul

    Can’t wait to find out what the ** footnote is. Ed M hasn’t confronted anyone … Apart from his brother?
    I think you also have to ask about EM’s reputation for indecisiveness. But top-quality argument.

  9. Livy

    The lesson Labour learned from the 2010 election is to never pick a leader who they don’t think is a first class communicator. Remember, whoever it is needs to perform in those X Factor TV debates.

    EM comes across as likeable but on a very personal level; his youth and naiveté could make him adopt a rather defensive and petulant attitude when pressed by the smarm offensive of the Cameron-Clegg juggernaut. Both men will have a vested interest in defending their record so be assured, it will be two against one. Like Hopi says, Ed will be marred as a figurehead for sectional leftist interests that don’t necessarily speak to all the people whose votes we need in order to win.

    David Miliband is the only candidate who can not only handle it, but actually wipe the floor with Cameron. Clegg, although more impressive with his shameless demagoguery, will nonetheless appear ideologically ambivalent and therefore untrustworthy.

    Labour needs a leader with intellect and charisma in equally high measure; to the point where he garners respect and confidence even among those who disagree with him. (A la Mandy, I guess.)

    Put someone like that up against Cameron and he’ll start frowning, sucking his bottom lip, unbalancing his shoulders and everybody watching will be reminded of the fact that there’s a difference between intelligent and educated.

    Ed Miliband? No. Give him 20 years, maybe.

    • Edward Carlsson Browne

      Evidence for D Miliband’s unbelievable charisma?

      He’s quite personable, sure, but he’s a wonk, not the second coming of Bill Clinton. If you’ve got videos of Miliband wiping the floor with his opposite number, by all means bring them out as evidence, but I have to say that in my experience there’s very little difference in oratorical ability between the brothers, and Ed probably sneaks it due to coming across as a little more relaxed.

  10. Newmania

    Another enthralling piece Hopi . This series is obviously a ruse whereby you can criticise Ed ,as you must, whilst maintaining plausible deniability . Your criticisms of David were flimsy , your attack on Red Ed; devastating . Allow me to make it explicit .
    As you imply , Ed is far too left wing . His liking for foreign adventures and shiny toys are only “right wing” , within the Labour Party. It is not attractive conservatives or Liberals.
    A few days ago speaking to the Guardian he said …“We left an economy that was good at creating jobs but left more people working harder and longer for less money. We let markets become too powerful in our society”
    Did we now ?What on earth is his tax ./cut , ratio then ? As we know ( and you admit )he is in the pocket of the Public Sector Union money men , god help the rest of us then , and he has liberated himself to attack coalition cuts by complaining the Brown was not ‘left wing enough’. Damn that stingy Alistair Darling …gulp …… He declared his support for ongoing Nationalisation of the Banks a policy Oswald Mosley enthused about …fucking hellski

    .He has quickly forgotten the lesson that voters taught New Labour about immigration at the doorstep .Unlike his brother his has not begun the process of rapprochement both with the communitarian working class vote and the South. David has had some highly interesting things to say about social cohesion which also lend him an appealing humility . A Conservative might not vote for him but would not detest him . As you say, he respects complexity. Both sadly are cultural deserts.
    Ed has flattered the Party with promises of democracy his insider past tells us he would circumvent.

    Why is Ed supposed to be the one who talks human ?

    David Milliband is charming and personable . Ed rattles off his lines in Brownite fashion he is humourless and appears incapable of listening . He is an arrogant and rather macho machine politicians ,I don’t like him, women do not like him . David , is an engaging and thoughtful man with considerable warmth and humanity. He smiles .

    Ed is boring , crude unprincipled/opportunistic disloyal and a Brown man implicated in and imbued with the ‘terror’ period of that Stalinist paranoid British Nixon

    I am glad to have the opportunity to say what you secretly know to be true but cannot say . Ed sucks the sweat off a dead man`s balls Dave 2 is ok.

    • Livy

      “Ed is boring , crude unprincipled/opportunistic disloyal and a Brown man implicated in and imbued with the ‘terror’ period of that Stalinist paranoid British Nixon”

      I actually laughed out loud at that….

  11. Sunny H

    We’ve fought a lot of elections under Soft left banners. Some of Ed Miliband’s team have been key advisers in such fights.

    We usually lost.

    You just fought an election very much in the centre. In fact, any suggestion that the party was vaguely centre-left was rejected.

    You lost. Badly.

    In fact it was the party’s second worst defeat ever.

    I thought even a skilled operator such as yourself might have learnt something from that Hopi.

    • hopisen

      I wasn’t aware that we fought the last election under any banner at all.

      • Brian Hughes

        Me neither. Phil Woolas put it quite well in his diary (which was quoted in the Independent):

        “23 April – Campaign is in full flow but it’s very, very flat … I am not enjoying this and there is a collective angst that our national campaign is uninspiring.”

        Although to hail it as ‘uninspiring’ is being a little too kind…

    • hopisen

      Let me quickly expand on my comment.

      It is actually quite arguable that Labour _should_ have fought the last election on a “soft left/fightback” strategy.

      What we needed to do, and what might have been the maximum we could hope for, would be to be largest party and possibly do a deal with Lib Dems. To do that needed a vote range of c 33/34.

      You could well imagine a campaign that was based around jobs/tory risk/recovery/tough choices , and trying to inspire voters with a this is it, now or never, do or die, message- combined with the Gordon Brown we saw in the last week, might have got us a little further.

      Certainly, I was hoping for a “give em hell, Harry’ campaign, which would have been unabashedly soft left – In other words, a 1992 vote share might have been a result. get a little more, say 36/32/22, and things get really interesting.

      We didn’t though. Nr did we fight on a particularly “new Labour” or moderate/centre ground agenda.

      Our pitch seemed to mostly be “We were right on economy, Tories would risk that, we’re not as bad as you think on other stuff and Tories are awful. Also, here’s Elvis.”

      I’m not sure that is a particularly left or right strategy.

  12. bert

    As an outsider to the grinding mentality that drives the Left, I read these vast polemics with increasing bemusement.

    Hopi, don’t you despair at the lack of fibre from any of the candidates? Where’s the spark, or the passion, or guy who can stand up on a soap box and inspire? Where’s the conviction, the drive, and yes, the courage, from any of them? Where’s the articulation? I hate to say this, but the only one nearing any of those criteria is almost certainly the most unelectable one – Edward Bollocks, no less.

    All of them were mired in the disaster that was the Brown premiership.

    Anyway, the Labour party is no longer the party of the majority, but the client state. Look at its spread of votes – eight and a half million? Now, let’s see if I can do the maths –

    six million public sector employees
    two and a half million unemployed

    Brown’s pathalogical cynicism almost worked, Hopi.

  13. mark

    I’m surprised you didn’t look at Ed’s record in Doncaster. It is very poor. His constituency party has been “troubled” and that’s being kind – splits all over the place. Has there been any “leadership” from Ed? An appallingly performing local Council that Labour has to take some responsibility for. To top it all Doncaster now has an English Democrat Mayor running it. There are other people in Doncaster politics, but shouldn’t such an inspirational force as Ed’s supporters portray him be able to sort out these local difficulties?
    I think Ed should get his constituency and the town he represents sorted before aiming for higher office.
    Can you imagine how this will be portrayed by our opponents?
    If he can’t get Labour to win in Doncaster what hope has he got in the South?

    • Edward Carlsson Browne

      That is an issue, but not as much as it was a few years back.

      Labour made big gains in Doncaster this year and given that opposition is normally good for us in council elections, 2011 will likely be much better. And it’s not like Peter Davies has a record of accomplishment that makes him a shoe-in for re-election.

      That said, either way he certainly does need to interfere more here. It’s shocking that Labour in Doncaster was allowed to get so dysfunctional.


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