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

Sunday 23 October 2011 02:56

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 Callaghan sought to breathe fresh life into outdated corporatist policies in the same way the equally Prime Ministerial David Cameron seeks to revive ideas from the 1980s, even though recent dramatic events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.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

View comments