If the Labour leader is to become prime minister he must work on his geeky image as well as his policies, according to Eddie Barnes
IT IS the morning of 8 May, 2015. Spring sunshine dapples the road outside Downing Street’s familiar black door. And on the doorstep, with his two children and wife Justine is Ed Miliband, the new Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (with or without Scotland). He waves for the camera, tries not to look too much like Tony Blair 18 years previously, and heads inside.
For many, still, the image is just too fantastical. Three years ago, after the younger Miliband beat his brother by the tiniest of margins to succeed Gordon Brown as leader of the party, one of the country’s most well-read political commentators reflected: “On Saturday, David Cameron won the next general election.” It was impossible to be a “cuddly woodland creature” like the left-wing Ed and walk through Downing Street, unless “as a guest”. For much of the three years since that comment, it has seemed thus.
Centrist Labour party figures have bemoaned the state of a drifting party led by a self-confessed geek. Their chances of victory had disappeared over the horizon, much like the Jumbo Jet which, earlier this year, carried the lost king, David Miliband, to his new job in New York.
But this weekend, the question is whether it might have all changed. Over-reaction in the negative side has now lurched to over-reaction on the positive. Two speeches last week – one by Ed Balls and the other by Miliband – have, in the words of Labour MP Alan Johnson, shown that the Labour leadership appears to want to “live in the world, not to fantasise about it”. And the same Blairites who had nearly given up are now ringing the church bells.
A poll on Friday – commissioned by none other than former Tory party treasurer Lord Ashcroft – put Labour a clear ten points ahead of the Conservatives. It comes with David Cameron facing the very real prospect, as Ukip powers on, of overseeing the same kind of fatal split on the right that happened to the left in the early eighties. So was last week the moment when Miliband – like Blair before him – passed through the crucial credibility barrier on the road to power? Or might it just be another false dawn?
Miliband’s and Balls’ double blast last week was part principle, part political necessity. George Osborne is putting the finishing touches to his spending review for 2015-16 , due at the end of this month, where he has already made it clear he plans to lay a trap for the pair by proposing a new cap on overall working-age social security. It will pile pressure on Labour to decide one way or the other what to do. Amid clear public hostility for the sums still being ploughed into benefit expenditure, the danger was that Labour would be left all at sea – and so further cement peoples’ perceptions that they could not be trusted with the public purse. And with the election looming over the hill, the Labour duo were required anyway to start showing some ankle.
Balls launched into a bog-standard attack on the Coalition’s deficit strategy. But he also acknowledged for the first time that if elected in 2015, he would sign up to the Tory spending limits for at least a year. One of the foundation stones of Labour philosophy – the universality of benefits – would also have to go; Balls announced that the Winter Fuel Allowance would not be handed to the richest pensioners. And he would show, as Chancellor “an iron discipline on spending control”. Two days later, Miliband made his own pitch, on welfare. Reflecting the polls, he agreed that people’s faith in the system had been “shaken” by the appearance that “some people get something for nothing and other people get nothing for something.”
Miliband also etched out, with little detail, the outline of a vision for the welfare state. It included a potential return to the contributory principle, so people who fall out of work get benefit according to how long they have been in a job. He also suggested the government should focus less on tax tweaks and more on better services; switching from housing benefit to more cash for better homes, and from child benefit and tax credits to better childcare services.
Tom Harris, the Labour MP for Glasgow Cathcart, was among former David supporters who were cock-a-hoop. Ed even borrowed a phrase Harris had coined about the party and its commitment to work (“we are the Labour party; the clue is in the name”). “I think this week has been really, really important. I know some Labour members may be a bit worried but this is where we need to be. On the side of working people.
“It won’t have a massive effect in the short term, but in the next two years it is going to create some ballast for us. Unless we can get past the scepticism that we can’t be trusted with the economy then every other message is not going to be heard.”
Another Scottish MP, Gordon Banks, added: “It helps to redefine the landscape in a way. It is important to be seen as pro-active and have a vision that has work at his heart.”
The need to show some kind of plan is, indeed, overdue for Miliband. For while the up-front poll ratings are all OK, the public’s perception of him as a leader and potential Prime Minister is awful. The same poll which gave Labour such a clear lead over the Conservatives last week, also revealed that Miliband is still well behind David Cameron as the country’s preferred PM. In it, people were given a list of personality traits and asked which fitted Miliband most. The most popular choice was “Out of his depth” on 34 per cent, followed by “Weak” (29 per cent), “Indecisive” (17 per cent) and “Weird” (16 per cent). Next – finally – came “Fair”.
The same poll shows Cameron and Nick Clegg are hardly seen as having glowing virtues, but Cameron is viewed as far more determined, and more likely to stand up for Britain. Overall, given a choice between the two as Prime Minister, he wins 58 per cent to 42 per cent.
And one speech isn’t going to change that. While Miliband’s words were seen as useful, party figures noted that they were just that – words. And no firm policies. The balance is tough to strike here, note MPs: opposition parties don’t want to give away too much too early (Gordon Brown, for example, only announced he was sticking by Tory spending plans six months before the 1997 election, one MP notes).
But the problem for Miliband, say many, is that having spent three years doing little to rebut his image as Gordon Brown’s heir, he now has a mountain to climb to shift public opinion and show Labour can be trusted with the economy once again.
For some, last week’s speech showed strengths and weaknesses. There was a thoughtfulness showing intellect, and a sign this is no simple PR exercise. But “no snappy tabloid headline”, noted one party source, who added: “It all still came across as a kind of north London lecture. So he needs to put some meat on the bones.”
As well as meat, others add, Miliband needs also to work on his image. Behind the geeky image lurks a nice guy, party figures say; he is the kind of man who (unlike his brother) you’d like to go for a pint with. But that too remains largely hidden. One Labour MP in a working- class seat in Scotland notes with exasperation that there is “just something about the way he speaks” that doesn’t quite connect. And what about in Scotland, the one place where Miliband does outscore Cameron? Miliband’s shift of gear was quickly spotted by Alex Salmond last week who seized on the shift away from universalism to argue that Labour was now offering much the same vision of grim austerity as the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
In Aberdeen Donside, where Scotland’s politicians have congregated prior to the Holyrood by-election on 20 June, the SNP candidate Mark McDonald is accusing Miliband of leading a party that has now “become indistinguishable from the Tories”. This week, an SNP Government-commissioned expert group on welfare will publish its own report on how an independent Scotland might run a benefits system. With Osborne’s plan for fresh cuts set to be outlined in two weeks’ time, Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon can be expected to mount a fresh assault on the “broken Westminster system”.
Some in the pro-UK camp acknowledge this could be their Achilles heel as the referendum campaign gets serious. Others, however, point to polls which suggest that there is just the same appetite in Scotland to haul in Britain’s benefit’s bill, and clamp down on benefits cheats, as there is in the rest of the United Kingdom. “As long as the SNP keep saying all this, then that is absolutely fine with me,” declares Harris. “You go to places like Castlemilk where I go canvassing and working-class people who have jobs will tell you they are very resentful of those who think they can live their lives on benefits.”
North and south of the border, few are now unaware of the need to rein in the ballooning public debt. Blamed for it ballooning in the happy days, Labour has a special need to show it is up to the task of restoring the nation’s finances to health.
Bold lines are now required, yet the details of Miliband’s plan still look sketchy. And his chances of finding himself on Downing Street probably still depend on whether the self-destructive Conservatives decide to help him on his way. But MPs and party activists will at least be comforted that a plan exists.