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

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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

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