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How to manage Ed Miliband

Ed Miliband at Welsh Labour conferenceI’ve said this before, and I’ll repeat it until I’m blue in the face. There is a current leader of a political party. His time in office has been marked by division, of colleagues going to war over who would be his successor, of backbench rebellions and open disloyalty, of habitually prevaricating in the face of crisis. There’s him, and then there’s Ed Miliband. Next to the Prime Minister, Ed’s leadership has made the political weather on energy bills, zero hour contracts, low pay, Syria, and phone hacking. For the first time since 1992, Ed has been the first leader of a major party to break with the neoliberal consensus and lead on those issues that are anathema to market fundamentalism. He has shown himself to be tough. He has demonstrated resolve.

Yet, we inhabit a queer political juncture. Despite being – let’s be fair to David Cameron – vacuous, unfeeling, incompetent and ineffectual, it’s his opponent’s mettle that is constantly questioned. Why? Apparently, Dave has the most elusive of qualities, of being ‘prime ministerial’. Pinning this down is like tacking jelly to a notice board. As far as I can tell though, the PM’s claims to this holy grail of politics is a smug self-confidence, the born-to-rule aura of someone who was, well, born to rule. That, and getting the last word at PMQs.

This, so the narrative goes, is a killer app our Ed lacks. Wholly undeservedly, Dithering Dave carries the air of competence. Ed on the other hand is, well … he’s just not like us. There is something of the wonk about him, a certain awkwardness that betrays an adulthood expended in constituency offices, think tanks, and Westminster. The “weirdness” voters attest to is an anxiety felt by many a party member and supporter. And in what will likely be a close election, questions about leadership will have a bearing on the outcome. Therefore, given the incessant belittling of the Labour leader and the traction the geeky tropes have, how do you manage Ed Miliband?

The short answer to that is not how he’s being managed already. The leadership team Ed has assembled are experienced and look impressive on paper. But they don’t know how to market ‘Ed Miliband’. Time after time, they’ve tried to replace ‘wonky Ed’ with ‘Ed the normal bloke’. A bacon sandwich later shows it to just look really desperate. Still, at least they haven’t had him pictured with a pint and a fag. I don’t want to say Ed’s back room boffins are clueless, but they are clueless. I can understand that Labour need to fight 2015 as the, if you excuse the New Laboury phrase, ‘reconnection election’, but you don’t do that by forcing on the leader ‘I’m normal, me’ gimmicks. Here then are some suggestions.

1. Turn a weakness into a strength. Everyone knows Ed’s a geek. Everyone also knows geeks are clever, focused and passionate. So why not play up on this. I don’t want to see Ed talking about the footy or having a campaigning takeaway. Instead, let’s have snaps of Ed on the train with Piketty’s Capital in the 21st CenturyThe Economist, and Retro Gamer. More photo opps with Rubik’s Cubes and pie charts. Occasionaly in-depth policy announcements. More pictures with acknowledged clever cloggs. Get the man an interview in New Scientist on climate change and green economics. Voters would like to think their leaders are very intelligent and have brains big enough to understand complex problems and propose solutions. Ed’s an intellectual. Dave isn’t. Use it.

2. The voters might think Ed’s super geekoid, but they also rate him as most honest, and most likely to understand “normal people” problems. Already, the electorate has ceded us compassion and being ‘most in touch’ – helped in no small measure on the last year’s focus on the cost of living crisis. Let’s have Ed then constantly in works’ canteens (cups of tea only!), children’s centres, school gates, doctors’ waiting rooms, CAB’s and YMCA’s. He absolutely has to be seen listening to ordinary people in ordinary locations about what matters to them as well as opportunities to sell policies that benefit the overwhelming majority of the electorate.

3. Relatedly, the “public meetings” in which the audience are hand-picked Labour friends and family have to be kept to a minimum. They might be alright for the odd set piece and good for morale – some party people love the idea of having “privileged access”. But we need less Blair and Brown and more, yes, John Major. No, I haven’t taken leave of my senses. In the 1992 election some, including lefties, mocked Major for travelling up and down the land to give stump speeches and answering all comers on a soap box. This allowed Major to claim the mantle of the authentic politician, of the one with the guts to face the public and not getting away with not answering questions. Ed has already done similar events (“Will you bring back socialism? That is what we’re doing, sir!“), but more please. And yes, with a soap box – but make sure it’s from a brand that pays all their taxes.

4. Regardless of the election’s outcome, the 2010-15 opposition will go down in history as the most effective opposition ever. It hasn’t stopped austerity in its tracks, and it has given the government some free passes – especially on immigration and social security. Yet, as I noted in the opening, no opposition has defined the political agenda more than this one. This speaks of Ed as a perceptive, consistent and occasionally ruthless leader. To have managed such feats and exploited his compromised opponents so successfully shows he is more than competent for the top job. So let’s hear a more about this, sans Mandelsonian “I’m a fighter, not a quitter” theatrics.

These are Ed’s qualities – his intellect, compassion, courage, and competence. May I humbly suggest to Ed and those around him that the best way to manage the leader is toplay to his strengths.

This article first appeared at All that is Solid

10 Comments

  1. James Martin says:

    The problem with him that can’t be got around is that most people are suspicious and hostile not because of the geek factor, but because he is a professional politician that has never done anything else, never had a ‘proper’ job, never been in a ‘normal’ workplace and never joined a union for the reasons the rest of us do.

    That can’t be changed now, although I do wonder why certain union leaders were sold by him in the first place, but what he does lack is a strong deputy leader figure that can counteract his worst traits and appeal to working class voters directly. Obama has Biden, Blair had Prescott, but who has Miliband got? Balls? Harman? No one in fact with the common touch, who is remotely likeable or from a normal-ish background or a lack of pong from the Blair-Brown years, and that continues to be the greatest electoral weakness in my opinion.

  2. David Pavett says:

    I agree with Phil Burton-Cartledge that Ed Miliband’s advisers are clueless and that he needs to break away from the narrow thinking of PR hype and present himself for what he is. On the other hand it is worth pausing to ask why these not rather simple truths have not already dawned on Miliband himself. Is he, like the Caliphs of the 10th century, a prisoner of his minders?

    I really wonder what is behind the claim that “Ed has been the first leader of a major party to break with the neoliberal consensus and lead on those issues that are anathema to market fundamentalism”. Just what is the evidence for this? It can hardly be the vague talk of market regulation nor the threat to break up the energy companies or to split the activities of the big banks. In fact those measures are perfectly consistent with trying to market the free market work better. As arch-marketeer Milton Freedman put it

    “The role of government … is to do something that the market cannot do for itself, namely, to determine, arbitrate and enforce the rules of the game.” (In Capitalism and Freedom)

    I am inclined to say that Labour has become so subservient to market ideology that even such talk is felt to be some kind of liberal breakout. It isn’t. A vision that doesn’t extend beyond “responsible capitalism” and a vacuous one-nationism is not one on which a penetrating critique of the market is ever going to be based.

    And is it true that Cameron has been “incompetent and ineffectual”? Judged how and from what perspective? He has reasserted the priority of the private over the public, shifted power towards the rich, and laid down a landscape which in areas like education Labour does not dare to question. We don’t like this but from a Tory point of view can this reasonably be regarded as a failure?

    Again I don’t know enough to judge the truth of the claim that “Regardless of the election’s outcome, the 2010-15 opposition will go down in history as the most effective opposition ever” but I sincerely hope, for the sake of the history of the Labour Party that it is not true. On issue after issue Labour has proved to be without vision and entirely ineffective. When Andy Burnham made a little breakout with some independent thinking he was immediately slapped down by Ed M. I am inclined to believe that on the contrary the current Shadow Cabinet is the most pedestrian and talentless one of all time.

    And just look at the pathetic state of Labour’s education policy. All Labour is able to contemplate is tweaks of what Gove has created (building on what was started by the Blair/Brown governments).

    I hope we can have some indications of the justification for the above claims because the seem groundless to me.

  3. John reid says:

    I agree with this article, but one thing, I don’t think JohnMajor on his soap box, was any less contrived, than Brown going jogging or Blair dong the washing up talking about his mum in a party election broadcast, the public had made their mind up, they weren’t going to have Kinnock as PM, and labour won the 92 campaign, and lost the election.

  4. Rober says:

    Labour the party of hard working.

    To those who are not hard working …we have camps with a nice sign on the gates. ‘Work will make you free.’

  5. PoundInYourPocket says:

    “no opposition has defined the political agenda more than this one”
    Perhaps we live on different worlds but the Labour opposition I’ve seen has been rail-roaded and batterred into a dark corner by the most ruthlessley effective Tory government I’ve ever seen. They had a set of free-market policies ready to roll on day one and hit the ground running with a real zeal for reform. In just 3 years they managed to rip apart the welfare system, the NHS and schools. They put New Labour to absolute shame as once they gained power they had no idea why they had it and floundered about looking for something they should do. The question on my lips has been “where’s the opposition” rather than “wow – what an opposition”. Also , on point 1, bear in mind that the public do not like “clever” people with “big brains”. They like sincere people, which I agree would be Ed’s biggest asset if he ditched the pat slogans.

  6. swatantra says:

    Ed may be a decent guy, but he’s definitely not a Leader. And the mood of the country will not accept him as a Leader or PM. So, if by some fluke according to the polls, Labour emerges as the largest Party, then the question of who leads the Coalition is bound to come up, and I don’t think Ed will come to most peoples minds.

  7. Dave Roberts says:

    Swatantra. Are you suggesting that there will be a leadership election directly after a Labour victory? I don’t think it’s allowed, is it?

    1. swatantra says:

      Anything is possible. Clegg might not wish to work with EdM as PM; knowing that he vetoed working with Gordon, on principle. We could put it to a Referendum to the country though: ‘Do you want EdM as PM?’

      1. swatantra says:

        You may have to go back to the last time a winning leader was trying to be forced out by an usurper ie Herbert Morrison trying to oust Attlee, and HM nearly succeeded in preventing Attlee turning up at the Palace to kiss the Queens Hand. So there is a precedent.

  8. David Ellis says:

    It doesn’t really matter what they do with Ed. Reformist opportunism is a dead duck. It cannot even offer pretend policies and world views like the third way and dodgy growth theory any more. The objective conditions for its existence have disappeared. It no longer makes sense. As Picketty proved, imperialism isn’t working. The crumbs are no longer available to sustain a priveleged labour aristocracy. The ruling classes are turning to more direct methods of policing including fascist boot boys and racist ideologues. How could it be otherwise when 85 individuals have more personal wealth than 3.5 billion people and a historic redistribution of wealth from poor to rich is only now getting into full swing.

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