Steve Richards: Take a risk, Ed – say what you believe

He must convey a crusading alternative to the current, outdated consensus. His voice must be his own

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Ed Miliband has returned from his paternity leave to be greeted by a mountain of advice. He must support Blairite/Cameroon "reforms". No, he should attack the Coalition from the right and argue that their changes do not go far enough. He must take on his party. He needs to show economic "realism" by supporting the Coalition's spending cuts. He must be new New Labour. Above all he must stop the "drift".

That last piece of advice is my favourite, conferring on the adviser an authority that the lazily evasive insight does not deserve. Still, that is more or less the summary of advice from newspapers and some of his MPs over the last two weeks. As far as newspapers like The Times are concerned, strong leadership would take the form of support for the Coalition's reforms. As for some Labour MPs and activists he should do, well, almost as The Times advises. Together they dance to Cameroon/Blairite tunes and no alternative set of reforms is acceptable.

My advice to the new Labour leader is that he should ignore advice. The media operates in a different timeframe from politics. Newspapers and broadcasters must fill space every hour of the day and want sleepless energetic action from leaders all the time. A meaningless gesture such as a photo-call with some huskies will do, even if it gives us the chance only to mock and make a further onslaught.

The rhythms of politics are different. After he became leader of the Liberal Democrats Nick Clegg could have gone on a two-year holiday. Voters only took note of him during the televised debates during the election. I am not suggesting that Miliband extends his paternity leave for the duration of this Parliament, but I cite Clegg's fleeting rise after a long wait as one example of many where the impatience of 24-hour news is at odds with the fate of leaders. In addition, most newspapers are more pro-Conservative and anti-Labour than at any time since 1992. Their advice does not come from nowhere.

Nor do leaders of the Opposition start from nowhere. They begin in a context over which they have no control. Some are lucky. In 1994 Tony Blair was elected at a point when the Conservative government was falling apart and had already lost the support of newspapers. In 2005 David Cameron was similarly fortunate, facing a long-serving governing party drained by Blair/Brown hostilities and heading for economic crisis. Harold Wilson was well-placed too, elected as Labour leader after a long period of Tory rule.

Others are doomed from the beginning. Even if he'd been more experienced, William Hague did not stand a chance in 1997 as he took on a fresh-faced government that had won a landslide. In retrospect, Neil Kinnock had an impossible task when he took over an unreformed Labour Party in 1983.

The closest in terms of early context for Miliband is Margaret Thatcher's succession as opposition leader in 1975. Obviously I am not suggesting that Miliband is heading for three election victories. I make a different point.

As far as history can act as any guide at all, the two of them set out against a similar political background. With a similar level of ministerial experience to Miliband, Thatcher became leader in a hung parliament. She did not have the support at first of a significant section of her shadow cabinet, most of which looked back to the Heath/Wilson consensus as the only fertile terrain, in the same way that Miliband's foes urge him to cling to Cameroon/Blairism now. In both cases the leaders' critics had not realised that the world had moved on from the era that had defined them.

There are other similarities. While Thatcher enjoyed a more benevolent media than Miliband ever will, it was sceptical at first, and quite a few Tory commentators doubted whether she would win an election. Still, she had a significant advantage in that the government was forced to make a series of tough and unpopular decisions because of the fragile economy. Miliband faces a coalition also making decisions in economic gloom that alarms a significant proportion of the electorate.

We know what followed with Thatcher. No one knows what will follow now. Miliband is not in an especially strong position, merely stronger than Hague's or Kinnock's when they began. He faces some tough challenges. Some of his brother's more militant supporters have not forgiven him for winning the contest and are restive. Once they were the control freaks. Now some of them are out of control.

Separately, the Coalition is winning the argument about the economy, or at least has framed the narrative in a way that is potentially fatal for Labour: "We are clearing up 'Labour's mess' and like any household must make ends meet." Thatcher won three elections with that message. Perceptions of the past can be a massive vote-winner.

But Miliband has advantages too, more so than the current deep and self-fulfilling pessimism on the Labour side seems to realise. The Coalition has not enjoyed a particularly long honeymoon. Support for the Liberal Democrats will be in single figures before very long, whereas Kinnock faced a still-thriving third force in the form of the Alliance. Cameron and co are racing ahead with policies in some ways with an admirable sense of ideological conviction, in marked contrast to New Labour in 1997, but in their rush they will make big mistakes.

They are like overexcited scientists in a laboratory surrounded by test tubes. There will be unexpected explosions during their ambitious experiments. Amidst the rubble voters will look elsewhere, perhaps fleetingly, but possibly all the way up to the next election.

In order to make the most of any opportunities that are bound to arise in such a febrile political situation, Miliband must take one very big decision. He is to the left of current fashionable media/Westminster orthodoxy that worships a small state, low taxes and unfettered markets. Does he affect to pray at the same altar in an attempt to reassure his flock of noisy critics, or does he dare to be himself?

He is fortunate in that he knows what happens when a leader tries to be what he is not. Fearing that his own convictions did not accord with those of enough voters and newspapers, Gordon Brown sought to be an apolitical father of the nation. Quickly the nation and its media turned on him, seeing through the voiceless, inauthentic contortions.

The route of agonised gymnastics is closed to Miliband on the grounds of overuse. The alternative is also risky. Challenging fashionable orthodoxy always is. In the 1970s Thatcher moved cautiously, only showing her real purpose when the Labour Party had split and she had acres of political space. She had a genius for recognising when she could make a move, but from the beginning there was a sense that she had a mission.

Miliband must convey a similar crusading alternative to the current outdated consensus and, when space opens up, articulate more clearly what the crusade will mean. His voice must be his own.

Perhaps such a leadership will end in tears very quickly, but maybe he will discover a populist language and a set of credible policies for an era still coming to terms with the global financial crisis. It is by no means impossible. Anyway, to revive one of Thatcher's favourite phrases, he has no alternative.

s.richards@independent.co.uk / twitter.com/steverichards14

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