Labour’s leader may be a wonk, lacking in concrete policies or charisma. But that doesn’t mean he’s a political basket case
Strange as it might seem, the only certain thing about the next general election is that Ed Miliband will still be leading the Labour Party. With Nick Clegg looking over his shoulder at Vince Cable and David Cameron at Boris Johnson, Miliband is the only one entering his party conference unchallenged. This, reports the ConservativeHome website, gives the Conservatives great pleasure, because they are convinced Miliband is a loser. ‘Whenever they hold focus groups on their opponents,’ it reports, ‘Tory strategists return with broad smiles.’
But here’s another strange thing: Miliband often reminds me of former Conservative leader Edward Heath. Stiff, pompous and lacking the common touch, Heath also looked like a loser. You could imagine him running an unexciting medium-sized company making something dull like screws, just as you can imagine Miliband running an unexciting think-tank issuing impenetrable and ignorable tomes about ‘responsible capitalism’.
In April 1970, the Tories had led comfortably in the polls for three years. But Heath’s personal ratings consistently lagged behind those of the Labour prime minister Harold Wilson. As the June polling day approached, Heath’s awkward, distant manner on the campaign trail contrasted unfavourably with Wilson’s folksy, chummy style. Labour moved well ahead and Wilson’s personal ratings soared more than 20 points ahead of his rival.
Heath called it ‘the shopping basket election’ and said repeatedly that ‘the housewife’ should punish Wilson for rising prices. From other politicians, the message might have seemed mundane and insincere. But the voters saw Heath as a serious and boring man. They were surprised and flattered that such a cerebral and technocratic figure shared their workaday worries. So they voted for him. To everyone’s astonishment (including the Tories) Heath won a clear majority.
Miliband, the son of a socialist intellectual, also appears to most voters to live on a different planet. You would not, to use the American test, enjoy a beer with him. Nor, to use the Johnson test, would you expect to see him on Have I Got News for You. He is patently a wonk, inclined to over-elaboration, generalisation and abstraction. He says he wants to re-make the country as radically as Thatcher did in the 1980s. Neoliberalism and free markets, he believes, have run their course. In the late 1970s, organised labour seemed to have taken too high a share of power. Today it is top management, particularly in the financial services industry.
All this may be true, but nobody has the faintest idea what Miliband would do about it. His leadership is a policy-free zone. His latest big idea is ‘predistribution’: stop extreme inequalities arising in the first place so that governments won’t need to redistribute resources by taxing and spending. But what does it mean? All Miliband suggests is that we equip young people with more skills so they can command higher salaries – exactly what New Labour set out to do.
Pundits see this as a fatal flaw. I see it as a strength. Miliband would be a fool to show his hand now. Politics has never been so fluid. The coalition is transforming the main pillars of the welfare state and any of its projects could end in disaster. Nobody knows how the government’s fiscal plans will proceed, still less whether the Liberal Democrats will last the coalition course or how they will position themselves at the next election. Nobody knows if Johnson will seize the Tory leadership from Cameron and if he does, whether his priceless gift of making people laugh will make an authentically nasty Tory party re-electable.
Miliband has accidentally hit on the perfect strategy for these uncertain times. Take refuge in abstractions, consort with obscure intellectuals and wait to discover what troubles voters as they go to the polls. All he has to do is find his equivalent of Heath’s shopping basket.
Peter Wilby is a writer, commentator and former editor of the New Statesman