Steve Richards: Cameron isn't a lucky leader, but Miliband is

Miliband's response to events has had more impact than that ofany leader of the opposition in recent times

Steve Richards
Thursday 02 February 2012 01:00

I have no idea who will win the next election, but I predict the contest and outcome will be as significant as 1945 and 1979 in marking a profound change with the past. Consider already how recent dramas will change the next campaign. There will be no overt wooing of Rupert Murdoch. The support of top bankers will not be sought either. What a contrast to the start of the 1997 campaign when Tony Blair paraded with gleeful pride his front-page endorsement by The Sun. In that campaign, and many others, party leaders were flattered indiscriminately by the support of the affluent. In 2015, proprietors will be kept at a distance and whenever a high earner utters support, the leader will ask nervously: "Has he received a big, undeserved bonus recently? If so, tell him to shut up".

Once-vibrant images from campaigns in the 1980s and 1990s will seem as distant as the black-and-white photos that record elections from decades further back. Some regard 1997 as another epoch-changing election, but that campaign was striking in that New Labour went out of its way to move on to familiar Conservative terrain. There was no big break with the past in 1997. There will be next time.

Leaders are navigating uneasily towards this historic election. David Cameron's misguided attempt to secure an easy symbolic hit by removing the knighthood of a single banker shows how rocky the ride will be. As I have argued before, Cameron and George Osborne are not the brilliant tacticians or strategists mythology insists they are. They are middle ranking, and when they try to be too clever by half, they slip towards the relegation zone. Voters do not care a damn about the sensitivities of a greedy, incompetent banker, but they can spot a red herring as big and bright as this one.

The failure of this populist gesture shows that the issue demands more clear thinking than a bit of Bullingdon Club game-playing, and points to massive challenges for both Cameron and Ed Miliband in the coming years. For Cameron, the issue confirms my view that he is an unlucky leader. Events beyond his control compel him to suppress his ideological instincts and to act in ways the voters expect. He does not want to interfere with the banks, even the state-owned ones. But he is not politically strong enough to be on the wrong side of public opinion. As a result, he signals a partially contrived outrage.

Margaret Thatcher would not have done so. She would have cheered the amount of money bankers were still making for the economy. But she was a leader in the old era, and one with acres of political space because her opponents were falling apart. She was a very lucky leader. Because of his awkward contortions, Cameron cannot just let the banks get on with it. But what can he offer as policy when it seems that limited transparency and increased powers for shareholders will not make a significant difference?

External events now reinforce rather than challenge Miliband's instincts. It was not his leadership that ensured media culture changed forever last summer. The phone-hacking of Milly Dowler was the spark. Before then, he was stuck in the old era, heading gratefully to Murdoch's summer party. Similarly, the vivid greed of the top bankers was bound to instigate a raging debate. But both events chimed with two of his long-term objectives: to move the economic debate beyond the assumptions of Thatcherism and New Labour, and to change the way the media functions.

It might not seem this way to him, or to his taunting critics, but Miliband is a lucky leader. He has made a mark in responding to these events, demanding an inquiry into newspapers, while Cameron has still clung to the idea of protecting the old order, and outlining in general terms the case for a new moral capitalism. In doing so, he has had more practical impact on the course of current tumultuous dramas than any recent leader of the opposition.

But the long-term policy implications are far from clear. To some extent, Labour is split on the banks and has been since 2008. The former Chancellor, Alistair Darling, made his case yesterday: "We are living in a globalised economy. In London, we have the world's leading financial centre. We have to be careful about compromising our own interests."

Darling's words and his counter-intuitive but widely respected criticism of the "tawdry" removal of the knighthood show that the next phase for Miliband will be a minefield. Milband is on to something in citing the German industrial model, with its focus on employees on boards, vocational training and a more balanced economy. Yet Darling hints at the problem of transplanting it here.

Cameron and Osborne are awestruck that in every opinion poll voters placed Tony Blair precisely on the centre ground. They want to be in the same place as their hero at the next election. But what it means to be on the centre ground is changing fast now and will have changed even more by then.

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