Politically, nothing of significance has happened this August. I am sorry to open with such a negative sentence and I am aware that it breaks all the rules of column writing. Yet, given the frenzied attention paid to the leadership of Ed Miliband since the start of the summer holidays, this statement of the obvious becomes counterintuitive.
As I wrote last week, David Cameron faces the same set of challenges that he faced a month or so ago, the most fundamental of which is that it is very difficult for him to win an overall majority at the next election. Given that is the case, there is only one other human being in the country who has quite a good chance of becoming prime minister in 2015 and that is Ed Miliband. For all its wild unpredictability, there is a quiet logic to politics. If Cameron will struggle to win a majority, Miliband still has an opportunity to reach No 10 – a much better one than any leader of the opposition since Tony Blair. This was the case in July and is still the case now, even after the August vacuum has been filled with stories about Labour in crisis.
These stories, it should be stressed, do reflect the anxieties of several senior party figures. Nonetheless, some of the August “crisis” frenzy is beyond parody. For 11 months of the year, Shadow Cabinet members plead to appear on television programmes and in newspapers to put their case on some policy point or other. Mostly editors turn them down: “ Thank you, but who wants to hear or read about Labour’s latest thoughts on transport or energy?” Yet when the reluctantly anonymous frontbenchers go on holiday for a couple of weeks in August, the media goes crazy. Where are they all? We should be hearing from them around the clock about their latest thoughts on transport or energy.
Quickly this becomes a crisis about the quality of the Shadow Cabinet, which merges into one about Miliband’s leadership. Miliband’s near-silence in August becomes part of the crisis too, but he is right to turn down interview requests at the moment when no one is listening. He must time his return to the fray for next month, the one that marks the start of the new political season, when some voters at least are paying attention.
Even that decision highlights a small dilemma of being leader of the opposition. How to turn a negative narrative around? Is it worth giving an interview in August or will that fuel the frenzy? Miliband made the right short-term call.
Of course, this does not mean there is nothing for Miliband to worry about. He should be extremely worried at all times. Tony Blair was far from relaxed in the run-up to the 1997 election, and he was 30 points ahead in the polls. A media frenzy is never without foundations. Few Shadow Cabinet members have the self-confidence to develop a case or to become a distinctive, authentic public persona. Surfacing speedily from the protected darkness of being a special adviser, Miliband has still not found his public voice either.
The issue of Labour’s weak frontbench team and the leader’s own half-developed public presence are both consequences of a recent phenomenon in British politics and a deeply depressing one. Until recently, senior ministers in both parties would continue to play prominent roles on the front bench and to fight leadership contests after they had lost a general election. Politics was their lifetime’s vocation. Now, the big, experienced figures bow out of the front line after the loss of power, their appetite for politics more or less sated.
Labour’s last leadership contest was fought by the younger generation, untested for long on the public stage. In contrast, and to take one example of many, after Labour’s 1979 defeat, the big beasts stayed; Messrs Healey, Hattersley, Foot, Owen and others went straight into the Shadow Cabinet. If that pattern had been followed, Alistair Darling, Jack Straw, Alan Johnson and David Blunkett would have stayed on the front bench and perhaps contested the leadership. They have the weight and experience to command attention, and they understand the rhythms of politics. Yet – apart from Johnson’s brief appearance as shadow Chancellor – none of them took that route. Or perhaps they were not invited to do so. As a result, a youngish leader heads a largely obscure Shadow Cabinet.
There is some tweaking required in an attempt to transcend a pattern that also weakened the Conservatives in opposition after 1997, when their most formidable figures stepped back from the fray. The control freakery over the current Shadow Cabinet – greater than in the New Labour era – has led to a remarkable level of discipline, but also to a fear of saying anything much beyond “We stand for One Nation”. Labour’s front bench should be freed up a bit to become real public figures instead of machines. As for Miliband, he has received much vague advice this summer (including from me). I have read or heard him being urged to “shout louder” and to “spell out what you stand for”. What easy words to utter, leading nowhere in particular.
Like Margaret Thatcher in the mid-1970s, he has a distinct view on the need for radical change in the midst of a deep economic crisis – one that, in his case, involves a more active role for government, in contrast with the anti-state approach of the Coalition. Again like Thatcher, Miliband has to time carefully the degree to which he reveals his hand. He leads a divided party that includes vocal figures arguing that Labour can win only by more or less echoing the views of David Cameron and George Osborne. Thatcher was in the same position. She ached to oppose the incomes policy pursued by the then Labour government, but her party would not let her. In the supposedly definitive guide to early Thatcherism, The Right Approach, published before the 1979 election, there was much evasive waffle about incomes policy being appropriate in certain circumstances. Until a leader is strong, he or she cannot fully spell out their desired course. And Miliband is not yet in a strong enough position to prevail either in his party or beyond. Thatcher was similarly compromised until the early 1980s, when her opponents fell apart, and she had the space not only to impose her will, but also to articulate more vividly what she wanted to do.
There are real dangers for Miliband in the current narrative. Quite a lot of the media have decided he is unelectable. Some in his party have reached the same conclusion. Allies will tell him that he must come across as more “leaderly”. But he should ignore this advice. If he tries new tricks, they will be utterly inauthentic and make him less credible. He is thoughtful, decent and principled. That is what he is and that is what he should be. Maybe it will not be enough, but the course is set, and it is a more benevolent one than the hellish routes faced by most leaders of the opposition since 1997.