Andrew Wilson: Ed Miliband’s lot as Labour leader

Ed Miliband. Picture: Getty
Ed Miliband. Picture: Getty
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OFTEN in the affairs of state, when profound questions puzzle the minds of us all, our earnest cry and prayer must seek out the wisdom of great people.

And so, when pondering the topic of leadership, where better to look than Professor Albus Dumbledore the Headmaster of Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry?

“I had proven, as a very young man, that power was my weakness and my temptation. It is a curious thing, Harry, but perhaps those who are best suited to power are those who have never sought it. Those who, like you, have leadership thrust upon them, and take up the mantle because they must, and find to their own surprise that they wear it well.”

Clearly the creator of this fine philosopher wizard was leaning on Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night: “Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.”

You can say what you like about William Shakespeare, but I suspect he could have held down a Sunday newspaper column and kept it interesting.

There is a truth to both sentiments, of course, especially when it comes to political office. In all of the walks of life that have touched mine, I have met people who strived for leadership who were, on the evidence of both potential and power, ill-suited.

That is not to say many haven’t achieved their goal. Organisations, clubs, countries, cities and businesses are littered with leaders who have risen above the level of their own competence. It is the “Peter Principle”. In a sense, fair play to them for having the gumption, drive 
and determination to give it a go. Hesitation and self-doubt are God-given to 
most of us. The insane certainty and self-belief of a minority may be one of the fundamental criteria for taking the hot seat on.

For much of my life I have been so clear-sighted of my own limitations that the top post did not occur. I have seen, first-hand, outstanding leadership and the price of bad leadership. To lead well can be the hardest thing in the whole world. I was once lying in bed in Washington in the small hours of a summer morning at the time Alex Salmond had resigned the leadership of the SNP. A very influential jour­nalist, commentator and powerbroker called to ask if I would put my hat in the ring.

The clever thing to have done would have been to prevaricate. In the event I actually laughed out loud. I had decent reviews and made a decent impact in my own way, but I was 29, what did I know about running the actual country? And for anyone seeking to lead a party, the core aim should be to lead the country, otherwise they are playing at it.

No such hesitation appears to have detained Ed Miliband when the opportunity arose to succeed Gordon Brown as leader of Labour and ultimately, the party hopes, Prime Minister. Against the expectation of all and the will of his party membership, he won, defeating his more experienced, polished and capable brother into the bargain.

And this summer, the wolves of his party are circling after an entirely unremarkable three years opposing an altogether unimpressive coalition government. He would be foolish not to listen to the criticism. Some of it is coming from some very clever political brains.

Some of it he can fix while some of it he cannot. The fixable is the big gap where a clear alternative strategy and narrative should reside. There are whole swathes of policy crises and priorities where no one in his own party, let alone the wider public, knows what it is that Labour stands for. Even in Scotland I cannot resist the observation that his party has no clear alternative model for Scottish Home Rule worked out, agreed or in train. Being “open-minded” is not leading.

The unfixable, however, is the intangible sense that we can’t trust him to, well, lead. Does the electorate see him as a potential Prime Minister? The reasons for this could be unfortunate for him but not yet fatal. He was born with the looks, sounds and mannerisms he deports himself with. We would be a shallow lot if we allowed such things to get in the way. It is possible for them to seem unimportant if the content of what he says resonates. It is here he should concentrate.

But spare a thought, I say, for all those to whom others look for leadership. It is an extraordinarily tough job where most of the harshest critics have neither sought nor won the role they feel free to diminish you for holding.

It is indeed, as the good Professor observed to Harry, “a curious thing”. «

Twitter: @AndrewWilsonAJW