Looking for trouble? Ed Miliband's love of a good scrap

Some Labourites think that the mud he churns up as he charges into the fray can permanently damage Labour

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For a gentle soul, Ed Miliband does like to get in fights. He’s the political equivalent of Arthur Seaton in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning: always accidentally involved in a political punch-up that he apparently didn’t go looking for.

His latest running battle started a fortnight ago with Boots chief Stefano Pessina and ended with a surprising victory over Tory donor Lord Fink.

Are these fights a good idea? They rarely worked out well for Seaton, but Miliband thinks that standing up to big powerful people is a way of defining his leadership. He sees it as showing one of the three attributes that voters like the most about him: courage (the other two are apparently decency and intelligence). It’s difficult to show courage when you’re an opposition leader as you’re not technically doing anything.

But some Labourites think that the mud he churns up as he charges into the fray can permanently damage Labour. The Pessina punch-up added to suspicions that Labour was “anti-business”.

Miliband’s other strategy to improve his own appeal to voters is to go and meet them. It sounds simple, but his election strategist Lucy Powell thinks it’s an important way of cutting past negative media coverage. “The perception of Ed is based on one or two things that are not necessarily true,” she says. Miliband now holds thrice-weekly People’s Question Times in target seats. “I think that has given us a good rhythm, but Ed has also relished it too and we have made a good impact in terms of the key seats,” adds Powell.

But again, not all of Miliband’s colleagues agree with this strategy. Some of them think their leader is rather awkward in person, avoiding eye contact and appearing aloof. Often, though, the most aloof people are shy, not arrogant, and certainly members of the Miliband team seem to think that they’re unlikely to have to deal with an oversupply of confidence any time soon. Which is what makes his love of fights so intriguing. Or perhaps it explains it: the man who picks a fight in a pub is often the one least at ease with himself.

Hack attacks

Fighting back might be a simple decision for Ed Miliband, but here’s a real conundrum. If someone manages a successful cyber-attack, how does the UK respond? If they’ve hacked the national grid or have turned off all the traffic lights, that’s as potent as bombing a power station. But because it doesn’t involve a bomb, do you necessarily bomb back? Or launch a revenge hack?

The current National Security Strategy lists cyber-attack as one of four highest priority risks to the UK along with international terrorism, international military crises and major accidents or natural hazards. There’s a new strategy due straight after the election which will then inform the Strategic Defence Review later in the year. This review is currently a convenient device for politicians such as George Osborne to dodge questions about how much money they’ll allocate to the defence budget overall.

Meanwhile, Labour’s shadow Defence Secretary Vernon Coaker has been doing as much preparation as he can from Opposition, meeting Ministry of Defence officials and so on. And that hacking question is one he and his colleagues are trying to answer.

Spinning around

Supercilious types dismiss Westminster as offering the “politics of the playground”. And the political playground at the moment does resemble those games of “dizzy dinosaurs” that children play at break time, spinning around before staggering dizzily to the finish.

Each week sees the parties spinning around, then pointing and laughing at the way their opponents stagger and trip towards the finish line. Just when a party thinks it is coasting towards the finish, it flops over in a giddy mess. If this feels odd to those taking part, or watching and jeering from the sidelines, just think how it feels for the electorate.

Just as passers-by might be rather mystified by seeing a lot of giggly, giddy children tripping over one another, so voters must be utterly baffled by the strange staggering race of pink vans, black-and-white balls and nuns that’s taking place at the moment. No wonder the polls are so inconclusive.

Homes for votes

Some Tories hope that extending the right to buy to housing association tenants will be the game-changer that stops the dizzy game and starts winning over the important C1 and C2 voters. My Spectator colleague James Forsyth reports that Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith is even considering handing over housing association properties to tenants if they have been in work for a year.

Now, there are a number of technical objections to this plan, not least from the Treasury, which worries that it will reduce even further our social housing stock. But a number of Conservative MPs are also not convinced of the politics of it. A number of right-wing Thatcher fans are concerned that the voters she would be going after today would be the fed-up aspirational renters, whose salaries are sucked down the rent plug-hole each month.

The Tories are so nostalgic about the way right-to-buy left Labour in a mess, opposing something that voters liked, that they’ve been trying to repeat its success for years. But extending a scheme that’s 30 years old is hardly dramatic. If the Tories really must reheat old Conservative policy victories, why not pledge to build 250,000 homes every year from 2016 onwards? Make the announcement, then make it the life mission of an ambitious minister to fulfil it.

That worked for Macmillan in the 1950s, and surely given the scale of our housing crisis, it could work for the party again.

Isabel Hardman is the assistant editor of ‘The Spectator’

Jane Merrick is away