Steve Richards: A chance has opened up for Miliband. But can he take it?

If the Labour leader's ratings were high, he could impose his views. As it is, he has to appease

Share
Related Topics

Like all Leaders of the Opposition, Ed Miliband makes his moves with a chorus of noisy voices speaking out. Move left! Move right! Be Bold! Be careful! Be yourself! Don't be yourself and go and buy a hot pie in Greggs! The only time a Leader of the Opposition knows he has cracked the job is when the noisy chorus turns into a soft gentle purr. It rarely happens.

The chorus takes many forms. Obviously the media is a major character and still one of the most important. Leaders pretend not to be bothered by what is said or written in the media. I once asked John Major whether he was an avid reader of the newspapers. He replied: "I read that I am and it's not true."

Miliband reads the papers, and being only human, likes the praise, yearns for more of it, and is more disarmed than he seems by the onslaught of criticism. I am told that the claim, in a crowded repertoire of attacks, that he was "ugly" – possessing looks not suited for leadership – especially hurt. This is not surprising. Again, he is a human being and one who had assumed, with evidence to back up the assumption, that he is not hampered by ugliness.

The media leans heavily rightwards, and is largely supportive of the Coalition's austerity measures and its version of what constitutes public-service reforms. At the other end of the noisy chorus are the voters of Bradford West, early victims of the austerity. In between is a moribund Labour Party with sclerotic structures producing unsuitable candidates in several important elections.

When I asked one senior Labour figure why the local party did not detect a swing to George Galloway last Thursday, he replied, "We don't have strong local parties any more. On the ground we are dying." More immediately daunting for Miliband is the degree to which, on crucial issues, his party, at least at the top, has been divided. On the economy, law and order, and strategy, there are, or were, internal tensions that a leader is obliged to address.

Miliband has not been in a strong position to address them. His personal ratings began low and have descended to alarmingly low. If they were high, he could impose his view on an admiring party. As it is, he has to balance and appease. This is a common role for leaders, and the most difficult. In the late 1980s, an interviewer asked Neil Kinnock: "I know you are leader of the Labour Party but what is your personal view of unilateralism?" Kinnock replied: "That is a contradiction in terms. As leader of the Labour Party, I am not allowed personal views." Miliband's strong personal views are sometimes lost in the need to subdue the chorus.

Against this backdrop Miliband has done better than his more virulent critics give him credit. For Labour to be 10 points ahead in some polls after a traumatic end to power is not a bad position to be in, even if the lead is fragile – a fragility confirmed by what has happened in elections in Scotland and in Bradford West.

But while the context is daunting it has always been far kinder than the one faced by Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard, who were up against a Labour Prime Minister soaring in the polls, most of the time, and an economic boom. Miliband opposes a Conservative leadership who failed to secure an overall majority and who govern in the midst of the most serious economic crisis since the 1930s. On this basis he should be doing better, starting to convey a hint of prime ministerial authority and charisma.

The events of recent days give him a chance to do so. The shadow Chancellor, Ed Balls, an astute reader of politics, argues that there was an inevitable sequence in the early phase of this parliament. The first episode was unquestioning goodwill towards the Coalition, not least an acceptance of its narrative that Labour had landed them in this catastrophic mess.

The next was the surfacing of a few doubts about the Coalition but no interest in Labour. Finally the goodwill would turn to disillusionment and give Labour at least the chance of a hearing. Admittedly this is an optimistic sequence as far as Balls is concerned. The alternative, that he and Miliband are heading towards defeat because they are blamed for the economic crisis, is obviously not an interpretation he is likely to articulate or believe.

But if he is right, and something like his description certainly applies as far as attitudes towards the Coalition are concerned, we have reached the pivotal phase for Miliband. After the past few weeks, no one can claim that the Conservative wing of the Coalition is luxuriating in uncritical goodwill. After the Budget, the poll ratings for the Conservative leadership in relation to the economy have slumped.

The art of leadership is to recognise when space appears and to use it effectively. In 1994 Tony Blair knew he could do almost what he wanted with his party because the hunger to win was overwhelming. In the late 1970s Margaret Thatcher saw she had very little space and moved carefully before exerting her will. She became more assertive as the Labour government started to fall apart. And for Miliband, a little space opens up.

A clue as to how he should use it lies in the correct call that he and Balls made when they were under pressure to concede huge amounts of ground. During the Coalition's honeymoon, some of their weak-kneed colleagues and parts of the media chorus urged them to apologise for Labour's spending policies in government, accept responsibility for the crisis, and to broadly support George Osborne's approach.

Such timidity would have given Osborne the biggest protective shield of them all, as questions are now being posed of him. But it took a degree of courage from Miliband to hold the ground. Now he has a bit of room to weave a populist message about competence and values and the policies that arise from them. He was never going to make much impact arguing that government can play a benevolent role in generating growth, taming some markets and creating fairness when the last Labour one was blamed for everything. The poorly judged Budget and lack of growth, the real reasons why the Coalition is in trouble, mean there is a slight redistribution of blame.

Miliband has an opportunity to improve his ratings in the post-Budget political climate, but if he fails to do so he cannot blame the Coalition's glowing media coverage any longer. It glows no more.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

React Now

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

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The Public Accounts Committee found widespread concern among civil servants that they would be victimised if they spoke out about wrongdoing  

Nikileaks explained: The sad thing about the Nicola Sturgeon saga is that it makes leaks less likely

Jane Merrick
New SNP MP Mhairi Black distinguished herself in Westminster straight away when she made herself a chip butty in the canteen  

The SNP adventure arrives in Westminister - but how long before these new MPs go native?

Katy Guest
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?