Allan Massie: Undaunted Ed Balls takes first steps towards No.10
HE has stamped his authority on his party, but Ed Miliband still has to convince the public, writes Allan Massie
Back in the early Eighties when I was doing a stint as a TV reviewer, I used to muddle up the Dimbleby brothers. So I took to calling them Tweedledum and Tweedledee. A quarter of a century later, I transferred the names to the Miliband brothers. Then the elder one, David, as foreign secretary, began to emerge as a distinct personality; the occasional appearance on Question Time showed that he had the ability, rare in politicians, of being able to laugh at himself. Younger brother Ed remained in the shadows. Those who knew him said he was bright but geekish; others simply dismissed him as a policy wonk.
No doubt there is still something wonkish about him, but his decision to challenge David for the leadership of the Labour Party showed that he was a tough and ambitious character. Protesting that he loved his brother dearly, he chopped him down. If it wasn’t Cain and Abel, it was at least Jacob and Esau, with Ed stealing his brother’s birthright. He won by cultivating the unions and became leader of a party in which most of its members of parliament didn’t want him.
All this was meat and drink to the Tories: Red Ed, a prisoner of the unions. If they thought this was the case, they must now be disappointed, Len McCluskey, the general secretary of Unite, complained this week that the Labour Party is treating the unions “like a nutty relative in the attic who pushes cheques under the door”. One understands his frustration, but then the unions are no longer what they were. The big unions today are regarded by many in Middle Britain as part of the problem, not the solution.
So Miliband is gently easing himself from their grasp – the nutty relative will be cosseted as long as she keeps pushing those cheques under the attic door – but she won’t be allowed to dictate party policy. This is why in his conference speech yesterday he reached out beyond the party faithful and the party’s paymasters. “We must be the party of the private sector as well as the party of the public sector…” There is no future for this party as the party of one sectional interest,” he said. Or to put it less politely: “That’s one in your eye, McCluskey.”
When he speaks of George Osborne’s “millionaires’ budget”, he is appealing less to old-style class warriors than to the middling people, the so-called squeezed middle who voted for either the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats and have been rewarded “with the longest double-dip recession since the war”. At the same time he supports the Osborne-imposed freeze on public sector pay. There is, though he didn’t say this precisely, no future in offering promises which won’t be believed. In any case, to abandon austerity might even suggest that the country has turned the corner, and that recovery is on the way. It is not in Labour’s interest to suggest this. So a nice balancing act is required.
Some have suggested that this conference speech is vital for the Labour leader. It is his chance, with the government in the doldrums, to show that he is prime ministerial material. This is not quite true. He will have other chances, for he is in the happy position of being secure as party leader till the election in 2015. A year ago his position was rocky; he was at best on probation. But he has had a good year since – partly through his own endeavours, partly because David Cameron has had a bad one.
Nevertheless, it is to Ed Miliband’s credit that people at Westminster and in the media now regard him as a credible prime minister-in-waiting. A Ladbrokes spokesman said the odds against him becoming Prime Minister have been slashed. The ConservativeHome blogger Tim Montgomerie gave him “10/10 for delivery, 9/10 for his solidarity/one nation message and 3/10 for telling us what he’d do”.
It is the first two ratings that are important. There is no need for the opposition leader to lay out a raft of policies now. It’s all right to make the occasional promise – as he did when he said he would restore the 50 per cent tax rate for the highest earners – but it’s not time for the manifesto. At this stage in the electoral cycle, it’s the general message that counts.
The interesting thing is that Miliband has decided to challenge the Tories on the ground that David Cameron tried to make his. Hence the echoes of Disraeli and all the One Nation stuff. It won’t do for Cameron to cry that trespassers will be prosecuted. Miliband is not only trespassing; he is squatting. Cameron may remember that Disraeli once said that the then Tory leader, Sir Robert Peel, had caught the Whigs bathing and stolen their clothes. Miliband is playing that game – or trying to play it. He has apparently recognised that he can’t win the next election without emerging from Labour’s comfort zone. Keeping the heartlands loyal and picking up some Tory and Lib Dem defectors won’t be enough. He must raid Tory territory too.
Just as the Conservatives have become a party of the south-east of England, Labour has been driven back into its northern English and Scottish strongholds. It lost millions of votes between 1997 and 2010, and has to win at least half of them back to have any chance of forming a majority government. Ed Miliband has served notice that this is what he intends to do – no matter how it irks Len McCluskey,
So no longer Tweedledum (or Tweedledee). Ed Miliband has taken the first steps to getting possession of No.10 Downing Street. He has established his authority in his party and told some of its members things they don’t much like. He has established his credibility in the closed world of politics and the media, surprising many on the Right with his confident and even engaging manner.
But there is still one river to be crossed: has he made the same impression on the electorate? Will his poll ratings rise? If they don’t, then much of what he has achieved will count for little, because the personality of the party leader nowadays counts for so much more than it used to.
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Saturday 25 May 2013
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