Mary Ann Sieghart: From the sublime to the ridiculous

If Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself, he may end up like William Hague

Sunday 23 October 2011 07:40

So how good is Ed Miliband? Or how bad is he? It's a question that commentators have been pondering over the past week, with – bizarrely – right-wingers like Peter Oborne and Matthew Parris defending him and our own Johann Hari pointing out his inadequacies. It's not so strange, though, that people's views should be split on the Labour leader, whatever their tribal tendencies. For he is a man who is almost impossible to pin down.

Every time I decide that Miliband really is too hapless ever to become Prime Minister, he surprises me by making a genuinely good speech or taking a brave decision. Then, just as I have been persuaded again that he is better than people think, he does something stupid.

The week before last, Miliband gave a thoughtful and well-judged response to David Cameron's statement on Libya. It was not only a powerful speech but a courageous one, as his backbenchers were by no means convinced that Britain should be involved.

Just five days later, he spoke at the TUC rally against the cuts, invoking the spirit of the Suffragettes, the Civil Rights movement and apartheid in South Africa to an audience who, unlike these oppressed people, all had the vote and had used it only last year. That the election didn't go their way was hardly an injustice to compare with lynching by the Ku Klux Klan. It made the Labour leader look ridiculous.

It would be easier in a way if Miliband were uniformly bad. But he is not like Iain Duncan Smith or Neil Kinnock. You couldn't imagine either of those men as Prime Minister. They didn't have the intellectual weight or the judgement or the credibility to occupy No 10. The only question was how soon their parties would have the nerve to replace them.

If he were more consistently impressive, you could compare him to a young Tony Blair or David Cameron. Both men were criticised for being inexperienced – almost inevitably when their parties had been out of power for so long – but it didn't take a great leap of faith to envisage them leading the country. The only question was what they would do when they got there.

But Miliband is neither useless nor excellent. He oscillates unnervingly between the two.

It's only fair to give him credit for what hasn't happened under his leadership. Labour hasn't fallen apart. There is no ghastly faction-fighting, as there usually is once the party loses power. Most Blairites have wandered away, either out of Parliament or on to the backbenches. The left are happy to have a leader who is more comfortable with them. The unions ensured he won the job, and he is paying them back by associating with their causes.

And, although Miliband has certain similarities with his old boss, Gordon Brown – not least expending all his effort in getting the leadership, then having few ideas of what to do once he won – the two men have very different characters. Unlike Brown, Miliband is personable, easy-going. He treats his colleagues well and doesn't bear grudges.

Take the example of Alan Johnson. The former home secretary had supported David Miliband for leader, but was called in by Ed the day after the leadership election. Johnson didn't shake his hand or congratulate him, but instead told him everything he was angry about and warned him not to appoint Nick Brown, one of the Gordon mafia, to be Labour Chief Whip.

Johnson was pleasantly surprised when Ed said, "I know you supported David, but you must come in and tell me frankly when you're worried about how things are going." Johnson was then amazed to be appointed shadow Chancellor, a job he hadn't even wanted. (Ed Balls, the man who did want it, desperately, sat next to Johnson in the Shadow Cabinet and, for the first few meetings, refused to speak to him.)

Miliband followed Johnson's advice and insisted that Nick Brown stand down as Chief Whip, a brave and sensible move, as the alternative would have been to endure a rival powerbase in the parliamentary party. He also sounded out James Purnell and Charlie Falconer – clever, Blairite former cabinet ministers who had supported David for leader – to be his chief of staff. Unfortunately for him, both said no.

But when Johnson resigned as shadow Chancellor, Miliband gave in to the pressure from Balls and appointed him. In doing so, he put Balls in an even stronger position, as Miliband has effectively conceded now that no one else can do that job. Balls has already tested his leader's authority by suggesting that the 50p tax band should start at £100,000, not £150,000, and hasn't been slapped down for insubordination. Who looks weak? The Labour leader.

These machinations are invisible to the average voter, though they matter at Westminster. If Miliband himself were less invisible to the average voter, they might matter less. But he hasn't yet managed to project a political personality that engages their imagination. He is just a big blur with a funny voice.

There is no need for him, at this stage, to come out with detailed policies for government. But people do want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him. Long before she became Prime Minister, we knew that Margaret Thatcher was a grocer's daughter with robust right-wing views who had little patience with the "wets" in her party. Similarly, we knew that Tony Blair was a middle-class barrister who wanted Labour to be on the side of parents, pupils and patients, not teachers' or nurses' unions.

When I put it to Miliband at one of his press conferences that voters still had little idea of him as a person and asked him to sum himself up in a few sentences, his answer was lamentable. He said he was passionate about his country (which politician would say he wasn't?) and believed in the power of politics. Great, a patriotic geek!

This answer told voters nothing new or engaging about him, and only served to perpetuate the stereotype of Miliband as a nerdy political operative. He is more than that, but if even he can't sell himself, who can? For leaders to reach out beyond their core supporters, they have to be surprising. David Cameron's photos with huskies and on his bike might have been derided as stunts, but they stuck in voters' minds and helped to define him as a different type of Tory. Blair's pronouncement, soon after he became leader, that two parents were better than one may sound uncontentious now, but was close to heresy in the Labour Party at the time.

Of course, it's very hard to be Leader of the Opposition. When William Hague had that job, he bumped into the new Home Secretary, Jack Straw, behind the Speaker's Chair. "Good luck!" said Hague to Straw. "You've got the toughest job in British politics."

"Oh no, I haven't," replied Straw. "You have."

If Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself, he is in danger of ending up like Hague: an intelligent politician with a good understanding of policy and tactics who nevertheless bombs with the British people because they think he is weird and too much of a political nerd. The north London intelligentsia may see Miliband as one of them, but there aren't nearly enough residents of Hampstead to win him an election.,

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