General Election 2015: Ed Miliband hasn’t ‘suddenly’ become a robust leader. He always was

Voters are choosing to see qualities that were there along

Steve Richards
Monday 27 April 2015 21:14 BST
Ed Miliband, former Labour leader
Ed Miliband, former Labour leader (OLI SCARFF | AFP | Getty Images)

During the election campaign some voters and a smaller number in the media choose to see Ed Miliband in a more positive light than they had before. A possible Prime Minister in less than a fortnight, he becomes a different leader to what he was. I am struck by the number of people who have said to me how calmly “prime ministerial” Miliband was when he challenged Boris Johnson on the sofa at the end of Sunday’s Andrew Marr show. Johnson blustered as Miliband, with gracious humour, took him on.

This observation about Miliband is an echo of an exchange I heard when I went to see him speak at a recent early-morning event. As he walked towards the podium, one onlooker observed to another: “He’s grown”. The response was more emphatic: “Yes, he’s definitely taller”. Miliband is well into his forties. On the whole people do not grow taller at such an advanced age. The onlookers were choosing to see what they wanted to see.

So were the viewers impressed with Miliband’s authoritative exchange with Johnson. A year or so ago, Miliband was on the same sofa with Nigel Farage. The Labour leader was equally impressive, calmly exposing the inconsistencies in Farage’s policies, reducing the Ukip leader to another bumbling figure. But a year ago nearly all chose to see Miliband differently. We did not see what was in front of our eyes - a figure with a command of policy, a sense of humour, and the confidence to take on the supposedly more engaging and authentic Farage. We saw only the caricature - a dangerously left-wing geek who could not eat a bacon sandwich.

Miliband is surprised by the change in perceptions. “I’m not doing anything differently,” he confided to advisers as he read that he had become a sex symbol. Early in his leadership, during a Today interview, John Humphrys described Miliband as “ugly”, meaning he was a figure unsuited for modern politics. Not surprisingly he was devastated. Now the writer Caitlin Moran has noted in a column that some of her friends fancy him. On the day her article appeared, it was the first highlighted to Miliband by advisers.

The change needs to be placed in context. Miliband is still well behind David Cameron in terms of personal ratings, and he may yet not win. Most recent polls suggest that the Conservatives are ahead. Nonetheless the recognition that there might be more to the Labour leader shows how the Conservatives and their friends in the media chose only to see of him what they wanted to see. They underestimated him when they had no excuse to do so.

His strengths, as well as his much reported and significant weaknesses, were in front of their eyes from the beginning. As I pointed out when he first became leader in 2010 he was Leader of the Opposition in a benevolent context - a hung parliament, disillusioned Liberal Democrats for the taking, a coalition following a dangerous economic path. Miliband was also experienced. If he wins he would be the first victorious Leader of the Opposition since Margaret Thatcher to have been a cabinet minister. In his case he also had a front-row seat during the new Labour era, the epic Blair/Brown saga, the “tax and spend” conundrums, the election campaigns. It was a good form of national service for leadership and a test of sanity.

There are many ways that a more strategically adept Conservative leadership could have challenged the Miliband leadership. Re-fighting the 1992 election with warnings of “tax bombshells” was not one of them. This should have been obvious. Miliband and his shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, have spent much of their adult lifetimes avoiding the landmines marked “tax and spend”. George Osborne seeks to ignite tax bombshells and they do not explode around Labour as they did in 1992. In this election Labour’s tax and spend pledges are more robustly costed than the Conservatives. This was always going to be the case from a Labour leader and shadow chancellor who were involved in re-framing “tax and spend” policies after their party’s defeat in 1992 and for the decades that followed.

Of the lessons Miliband learnt from his long political past, one of the most important was the need to retain a sense of perspective. He has not always been as calm as he has appeared to be, but having witnessed and experienced the wildly oscillating ride of Gordon Brown when a single newspaper column could trigger despair, Miliband knows that the chorus on Twitter and beyond is not as significant as it seems. Such an insight is invaluable to a leader in the noisy modern era. The insight was in place by 2010.

The dynamic of changing perceptions can work in the opposite direction and that can be dangerous. Take David Cameron in this campaign. In reality Cameron is working around the clock to win, and he has been for months. His commitment is in front of our eyes. He is on our TV screens in different parts of the country from early in the morning until late at night. Because Cameron has not made a decisive breakthrough in the polls we choose to see what we want to see, that his heart is not in it and he is not really bothered. Of course he is bothered.

Perhaps there are deeper reasons for the Conservatives’ failure to stride ahead so far, such as their plans to cut the deficit at an irrational and dangerous speed. Osborne’s plans were partly drawn up to “trick” Miliband and Balls. He had chosen to see them as reckless tax and spenders when their long reign at the Treasury and their subsequent public statements showed they were not. He chose not to see what he could have seen.

Whatever the final outcome, Miliband performs robustly now and avoids the traps. There was plenty of evidence to suggest he might do so. It was always there in front of our eyes.

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