Steve Richards: The lessons that Miliband can learn from Margaret Thatcher

He has been trying too hard to please everyone. In the end, authenticity is more potent than contorted appeasement of internal and external elements

Share
Related Topics

Frustratingly, the future in politics is unknown. We do not know for sure what will happen next. In an attempt to find out, we tend to return to the recent past for guidance. The terrain is crowded at the moment as Ed Miliband is portrayed regularly as Labour's equivalent of William Hague or Iain Duncan Smith, doomed leaders who took over their party after election defeats.

The terrain is treacherous. Miliband cannot be the equivalent of Hague or Duncan Smith. He leads in a tough, but far more benevolent context. From the beginning, the two Tory leaders were destined to fail as they faced a mesmerising Tony Blair armed with a booming economy, landslide majorities and a defensive strategy aimed at marginalising the Tories. In the end Labour was undone by the strategy, opening the door for David Cameron to argue astutely that his party largely agreed with Blair. But for a time the task of opposition was simply impossible for any Tory leader.

As I wrote last autumn, in terms of context, Miliband is closer to Margaret Thatcher's position in the mid-1970s when she became Leader of the Opposition. The parallels are even more precise now. In opposition, Thatcher faced a governing party that had failed to secure an overall majority on its own. Her main opponent, Jim Callaghan, was widely hailed as a leader at ease with being Prime Minister, but his government was chaotic in its policy-making. Callaghan sought to breathe fresh life into outdated corporatist policies in the same way the equally Prime Ministerial David Cameron seeks to revive ideas from the 1980s, even though recent dramatic events demand fresh thinking.

Thatcher was viewed with wariness in parts of her party as Miliband is now. Some leading Conservatives were convinced they should have elected Willie Whitelaw, as some Blairites believe David Miliband would lead them to the Promised Land. The tensions in the mid-1970s partly reflected an ideological battle between one-nation Tories and the laissez-faire small state radicals around Thatcher. Now Miliband leads a party in which some influential followers of Tony Blair broadly support what the Coalition is doing. This is his big dilemma. How to oppose the Coalition and appease influential figures?

The answer is he has been trying a little too hard to please everyone. In Peter Mandelson's recent paperback version of his memoirs, Mandelson cites a discussion he had with Miliband during Gordon Brown's troubled leadership. Miliband told Mandelson: "Gordon didn't say and do what he really believed, he was trapped between his personal instincts and what he could get away with. And this was why people had such negative perceptions of him". Miliband needs to bear this astute observation in mind as he faces the almost impossible task of leadership. In the end authenticity is more potent than contorted appeasement of internal and external opponents.

Of course there is no guarantee that Miliband will rise to the occasion as Thatcher did with such destructive magnificence, but he still has the chance to do so. Importantly, he has been close to the heat of power, having been part of Brown's entourage from the early 1990s. He was not as central as Ed Balls, a centrality that gives the shadow chancellor the steel to stride through political storms that would destroy less experienced colleagues. But Miliband was close enough to learn the rhythms of power, the equivalent of mastering a foreign language. IDS, Hague and Neil Kinnock were not, although Hague had been a minor cabinet minister. I expect this explains Miliband's calm in the face of several confidence-sapping explosions. He has witnessed so many explosions during the Blair/Brown era that he knows how to measure their significance. I do not believe for one moment that the appearance of calm is a sign of complacency. It is impossible to be a Labour leader and suffer from complacency. A reading of the newspapers each morning would not exactly bring about a state of intoxicated contentment for Miliband.

The challenges go beyond hostile newspapers, although such hostility makes Miliband much more vulnerable. He leads a party that is as divided as the Conservatives were after 1997, even if the division is less vivid. The Tories were split over Europe but, as Cameron has demonstrated, Thatcherism had largely prevailed within his party and required a new projection rather than fundamental policy change.

At, or near, the top, Labour is split over deficit reduction and the related strategic debate about whether it should apologise for its culpability. There are divisions over the role of the state and markets. Emotions still run high. I know some very decent, normally mild-mannered people who insist they will never forgive Miliband for standing against his elder brother, a fraternal trauma that has come to stand, partly misleadingly, for the divide within the party. His party as a whole seems lacklustre and in need of further reform, as his brother is perceptively aware.



In terms of policy-making, Miliband responds to the challenge by pursuing the correct course, not rushing into gimmicks but focusing on the building blocks, as he did during yesterday's clever speech in which responsibility was linked to the greed of the boardroom and the passivity of some welfare claimants. Often he is ahead of the journalists in picking subjects at Prime Minister's Questions that expose the rushed policy-making of the Coalition. Like Thatcher, he knows what he would do with the country if given the chance. His office has gone as far as looking up her 1979 manifesto to discover how she managed to convey ideological conviction with expediency that more or less united her party and won wider support among voters. Unlike her, he has to find a way of articulating his counter-vision without the support of the media. Not easy.

Whether he has the necessary repertoire of leadership skills we will know soon enough. Barbara Castle said of Thatcher, "leadership made her beautiful". Leadership can go either way. Kinnock and Foot lost their previously much admired political "beauty" with leadership. So did Hague. Blair acquired "beauty". So has Cameron. Miliband has not done so yet. But he is no Hague, nor IDS. He still has the chance of becoming Prime Minister and they never did.



s.richards@independent.co.uk



React Now

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

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If I were Prime Minister: I'd end the war on drugs

Patrick Hennessey
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month  

General Election 2015: Politics is the messy art of compromise, unpopular as it may be

David Blunkett
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

Flesh in Venice

Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
11 best anti-ageing day creams

11 best anti-ageing day creams

Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

Juventus vs Real Madrid

Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power