Peter Oborne’s article in the Telegraph about the political strength of Ed Miliband is very welcome. I do not agree with Oborne on the question of Miliband’s proposed reforms of the party’s relationship with the unions, but his article is a very useful corrective to the erroneous “common sense” that Ed is a weak leader of the opposition.
In fact, Miliband has been extraordinarily successful in imposing his priorities, and the priorities of the Labour opposition onto the political agenda, despite the tendency of the mainstream media to sideline any opposition party. In that regard he has already been more successful than Thatcher, Cameron, Kinnock, Smith or Blair were in opposition
He has done several big and important things. The first was an act of great bravery. For roughly three decades all senior British politicians had deferred in the most demeaning and improper way to the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch. Mr Miliband refused to go along with this, thus helping to remove a giant stench from the heart of British public life.
His second move was almost as audacious. When Ed Miliband became Labour leader, all political parties allowed the super-rich to buy access to decision-making, and in some cases even to purchase government policy.
Again breaking with precedent, the new Labour leader refused to go weak at the knees when meeting billionaires. He even told them to pay their taxes. He has done his best to prioritise what he called the “squeezed middle” – hard-working people who obey the law, pay their taxes and find it very hard to get by. Greatly to his credit, over time he has dragged the Coalition with him in this mission.
… Now we come to Mr Miliband’s great achievement: his opposition to David Cameron’s foolish suggestion three weeks ago that Britain should take part in an impetuous military attack on Syria. The Labour leader stood up against this – and changed the course of events. Whatever the fate of Mr Miliband from now on, even suppose he falls under a bus tomorrow, he has made the history books.
Remember this: had Mr Cameron got his way, Tomahawk missiles were due to hit Damascus within 48 hours of that Commons vote. Ed Miliband’s level-headed demand for evidence, and respect for due process in the shape of the United Nations, bought the world time to think again. As a result, Assad has agreed to destroy his chemical weapons peacefully, thus creating the space for possible talks in Geneva that (let us pray) may bring an end to the conflict.
Of course, a number of factors, above all the wise and skilful statesmanship of Russia’s Sergei Lavrov (the most formidable and clear-headed foreign minister in the world today) are responsible for the changed state of affairs. But Mr Miliband played his part. Not since Hugh Gaitskell unsuccessfully tried to avert the Suez invasion in 1956 has an opposition leader diverged from the government so dramatically, or so honourably, on an urgent issue of war and peace.
These are wise words, and it is important to recognise how difficult the art of politics is. As with any skill, those who are good at it make it look easy, but what Miliband has achieved so far has been difficult, and he deserves more credit.
Going into conference Labour faces two major challenges.
Firstly, we are getting closer to a general election, and it is necessary to start fleshing out the vision of One Nation Labour with more defined policies, so that voters can see how a Labour government will actually work to benefit them, their families, their workmates and their communities.
Secondly, the relationship with the affiliated unions needs to be resolved with an acceptable compromise that does not fundamentally jettison the collective basis with which unions relate to the party, but which still helps to move towards Ed’s vision of a mass membership party.
There will be many outside the party, and sadly some inside it, who will be determined to misrepresent any compromise with the unions as a defeat or climb down by Miliband. Yet, precisely because he has demonstrated skill and bravery as leader of the opposition, he can afford to ignore those luring him onto the rocks. Compromise is not a sign of weakness, it is a manifestation of strength.
The unions and Ed Milband share a common goal to have a fairer and better Britain, they share a common goal of a Labour Party that is engaged with ordinary working people. These are the foundations for building a stronger relationship, not for breaking apart.