Miliband has great strengths – but can he convince the voters in time?

He may not look prime ministerial, but his background gives him more experience of power than Blair, Brown, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg had when they came to office


I cannot recall such a wide gap between the perception of a leader and the reality than the one that torments Ed Miliband. I do not mean by this that there are no causes for his extremely low personal ratings. There are always reasons why a leader or his party performs poorly in opinion polls. But the precise judgments on Miliband are wrong. Voters regard him as weak, inexperienced and indecisive when he is not.

Much of politics is deeply subjective, but occasionally we have a few facts to guide us through the maze. Miliband is the most experienced leader of the opposition for four decades. At key points he has been decisive in a courageous fashion, breaking with orthodoxy and not taking the easy safe route. Voters may disagree with what he is offering them. That is a different matter, but it should be beyond contention to point out that he is unusually experienced for a leader of the opposition and “strong” in the sense of being politically brave.

So far Labour is losing the battle over the recent past by a wide margin so Miliband does not dare to look back. As a result most voters probably assume he surfaced from nowhere after the 2010 election. In reality were he to become Prime Minister Miliband would be the first opposition election winner since Margaret Thatcher to have served as a cabinet minister. Equally important, and unlike Thatcher, he worked in the Treasury as a special adviser for years at a senior level, not as senior as Ed Balls, but more battle scarred than, say, David Cameron who served briefly as an adviser to Norman Lamont at the Treasury – albeit at a time of high drama. Although he took a short break during his long spell of service at the Treasury Miliband has experience of the pivotal interface between politics and economic policy making.

He would enter Number Ten with a direct sense of how the Treasury functioned and how a specialist Whitehall department works. He also has a pretty good sense of how Number Ten can perform – and not perform – having witnessed the operation of two prime ministers at close hand.

He may not look prime ministerial and at times can appear as young as a sixth former, but his background gives him more experience of power than Blair, Brown, Cameron, Osborne and Clegg had when they came to office. None of them had been a junior minister, let alone in the cabinet. In all cases lack of experience explains quite a lot about the mistakes each of them made. By contrast the reason why in her early years Thatcher had definition, while displaying more expedience than caricature suggests, is that she had been an Education Secretary and seen, from the useful perspective of the cabinet table, an earlier Prime Minister struggle with the nightmarish challenges of power. Recent rulers have had no such experience to guide them and, unconstrained by direct knowledge, showed they were not prepared for government.

Contrary to mythology Miliband does know what he would do with power if he secured it. His decision to stand against his elder brother was not just an act of vanity, or a consequence of filial rivalry, although no doubt both played a part. It was also ideological. Miliband hopes to be as radical as Thatcher was, and, at times, in opposition has signalled this ambition. His call for a judicial inquiry into the conduct of the media was one his recent predecessors would not have dared to make. Believing that the media culture in Britain makes it almost impossible for a left-of-centre leader to innovate he seized the moment and Cameron had to follow.

The same applies to his decision to oppose Cameron in the Commons over Syria. Many have interpreted this  as purely cynical and opportunistic. But it was more complex than that. There is immense pressure on a Leader of the Opposition to support a Prime Minister when he plans for military action in alliance with the US. It was by no means a risk-free option not to go along with the military timetable that Cameron had planned with President Obama. Again his recent predecessors would have decided they had no choice but to support Cameron to appear “responsible”, “strong” and “a credible alternative government”.

Sure enough, although Miliband helped to create the space for diplomacy to play its part, he has been slaughtered for being “irresponsible”. Some will disagree with these positions but they are not “weak” or “vacuous”.

 The next general election campaign will be the fifth that Miliband has been close to. Again he was nowhere near as involved as the key players from Labour’s recent past, but close enough to appreciate their rhythms, traps and artfulness. The Conservatives seem very confident they can fight a “tax and spend” campaign like the one in 1992. Perhaps they are right to be. But I would be surprised if Miliband and Balls give them very much ammunition. They were close to the 1997 campaign, the last time Labour sought to win from opposition, and know the art of making policy announcements without spending commitments, a silly, but necessary, exercise for an opposition mistrusted to spend a halfpenny.

Recent days have shown how tough this contortion can be. For months, if not years, there have been demands for policy announcements from Labour, even though the election was miles away. Now that they have unveiled a few policies the cry goes up: How will you pay for that? The game is to unveil policies, while claiming they will be paid for from existing budgets or a tiny popular tax rise elsewhere. It is a game, but a very important one. Miliband and Balls have played it for a long time.

But even if perceptions of Miliband are wrong they are widely held and therefore a very big problem for him and his party. Partly it is to do with context. Having lost the battle of the recent past many voters blame him and Balls for the economic crisis. In every speech and interview they should point out that the economy was growing again when they were removed from power, but seem to have given up this fight.

Miliband has also still to find a compelling public voice, illustrated by his awkward televisiion appearance yesterday with Andrew Marr, and has not yet learnt how to appear commanding – another game in opposition, but a vital one. He should have been on the Today programme at ten past eight the morning after the Syrian vote in the Commons giving the impression he was now in charge of foreign policy. After his clever “One Nation” conference speech a year ago he should have then toured every part of the nation, armed with symbolic policies, to reinforce his point.

The political art goes well beyond the important set piece occasions of party conference speeches, Prime Ministers’ Questions and occasional interviews. It is the responsibility of the artist to convey his strengths. In the presidential culture of British politics if voters have not recognised Miliband’s by 2015 Labour will struggle to win a winnable general election.

Ed Miliband is the most experienced leader of the opposition for four decades

React Now

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Letter from the Political Editor: Phone and data laws to be passed in haste

Andrew Grice
The first lesson of today is... don't treat women unequally?  

Yvette Cooper is right: The classroom is the best place to start teaching men about feminism

Chris Maume
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice