Mary Ann Sieghart: From the sublime to the ridiculous

If Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself, he may end up like William Hague

Related Topics

So how good is Ed Miliband? Or how bad is he? It's a question that commentators have been pondering over the past week, with – bizarrely – right-wingers like Peter Oborne and Matthew Parris defending him and our own Johann Hari pointing out his inadequacies. It's not so strange, though, that people's views should be split on the Labour leader, whatever their tribal tendencies. For he is a man who is almost impossible to pin down.

Every time I decide that Miliband really is too hapless ever to become Prime Minister, he surprises me by making a genuinely good speech or taking a brave decision. Then, just as I have been persuaded again that he is better than people think, he does something stupid.

The week before last, Miliband gave a thoughtful and well-judged response to David Cameron's statement on Libya. It was not only a powerful speech but a courageous one, as his backbenchers were by no means convinced that Britain should be involved.

Just five days later, he spoke at the TUC rally against the cuts, invoking the spirit of the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement and apartheid in South Africa to an audience who, unlike these oppressed people, all had the vote and had used it only last year. That the election didn't go their way was hardly an injustice to compare with lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. It made the Labour leader look ridiculous.

It would be easier in a way if Miliband were uniformly bad. But he is not like Iain Duncan Smith or Neil Kinnock. You couldn't imagine either of those men as Prime Minister. They didn't have the intellectual weight or the judgement or the credibility to occupy No 10. The only question was how soon their parties would have the nerve to replace them.

If he were more consistently impressive, you could compare him to a young Tony Blair or David Cameron. Both men were criticised for being inexperienced – almost inevitably when their parties had been out of power for so long – but it didn't take a great leap of faith to envisage them leading the country. The only question was what they would do when they got there.

But Miliband is neither useless nor excellent. He oscillates unnervingly between the two.

It's only fair to give him credit for what hasn't happened under his leadership. Labour hasn't fallen apart. There is no ghastly faction-fighting, as there usually is once the party loses power. Most Blairites have wandered away, either out of Parliament or on to the backbenches. The left are happy to have a leader who is more comfortable with them. The unions ensured he won the job, and he is paying them back by associating with their causes.

And, although Miliband has certain similarities with his old boss, Gordon Brown – not least expending all his effort in getting the leadership, then having few ideas of what to do once he won – the two men have very different characters. Unlike Brown, Miliband is personable, easy-going. He treats his colleagues well and doesn't bear grudges.

Take the example of Alan Johnson. The former home secretary had supported David Miliband for leader, but was called in by Ed the day after the leadership election. Johnson didn't shake his hand or congratulate him, but instead told him everything he was angry about and warned him not to appoint Nick Brown, one of the Gordon mafia, to be Labour Chief Whip.

Johnson was pleasantly surprised when Ed said, "I know you supported David, but you must come in and tell me frankly when you're worried about how things are going." Johnson was then amazed to be appointed shadow Chancellor, a job he hadn't even wanted. (Ed Balls, the man who did want it, desperately, sat next to Johnson in the Shadow Cabinet and, for the first few meetings, refused to speak to him.)

Miliband followed Johnson's advice and insisted that Nick Brown stand down as Chief Whip, a brave and sensible move, as the alternative would have been to endure a rival powerbase in the parliamentary party. He also sounded out James Purnell and Charlie Falconer – clever, Blairite former cabinet ministers who had supported David for leader – to be his chief of staff. Unfortunately for him, both said no.

But when Johnson resigned as shadow Chancellor, Miliband gave in to the pressure from Balls and appointed him. In doing so, he put Balls in an even stronger position, as Miliband has effectively conceded now that no one else can do that job. Balls has already tested his leader's authority by suggesting that the 50p tax band should start at £100,000, not £150,000, and hasn't been slapped down for insubordination. Who looks weak? The Labour leader.

These machinations are invisible to the average voter, though they matter at Westminster. If Miliband himself were less invisible to the average voter, they might matter less. But he hasn't yet managed to project a political personality that engages their imagination. He is just a big blur with a funny voice.

There is no need for him, at this stage, to come out with detailed policies for government. But people do want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him. Long before she became Prime Minister, we knew that Margaret Thatcher was a grocer's daughter with robust right-wing views who had little patience with the "wets" in her party. Similarly, we knew that Tony Blair was a middle-class barrister who wanted Labour to be on the side of parents, pupils and patients, not teachers' or nurses' unions.

When I put it to Miliband at one of his press conferences that voters still had little idea of him as a person and asked him to sum himself up in a few sentences, his answer was lamentable. He said he was passionate about his country (which politician would say he wasn't?) and believed in the power of politics. Great, a patriotic geek!

This answer told voters nothing new or engaging about him, and only served to perpetuate the stereotype of Miliband as a nerdy political operative. He is more than that, but if even he can't sell himself, who can? For leaders to reach out beyond their core supporters, they have to be surprising. David Cameron's photos with huskies and on his bike might have been derided as stunts, but they stuck in voters' minds and helped to define him as a different type of Tory. Blair's pronouncement, soon after he became leader, that two parents were better than one may sound uncontentious now, but was close to heresy in the Labour Party at the time.

Of course, it's very hard to be Leader of the Opposition. When William Hague had that job, he bumped into the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, behind the Speaker's Chair. "Good luck!" said Hague to Straw. "You've got the toughest job in British politics."

"Oh no, I haven't," replied Straw. "You have."

If Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself, he is in danger of ending up like Hague: an intelligent politician with a good understanding of policy and tactics who nevertheless bombs with the British people because they think he is weird and too much of a political nerd. The north London intelligentsia may see Miliband as one of them, but there aren't nearly enough residents of Hampstead to win him an election.,

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - OTE £25,000

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Account Manager

£22000 - £28000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An SEO Account Manager is requi...

Guru Careers: .NET Developer / Web Developer

£35-45K (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a .NET Developer / Web ...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Manager - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Commercial Manager is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Hollywood: Stop trying to make Superman cool. The world needs a boy scout in blue

Matthew Daly
A man enjoys the  

If you really want to legalise cannabis, then why on earth would you go and get high in a park?

Peter Reynolds
Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders