Ed Miliband’s stalled insurgency – a review of ‘The Milibands’.
Reading Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s ‘The Milibands’ mostly filled me with a sense of despair and frustration. This is not because it’s that badly written, in fact, it’s written rather well, it is structured reasonably well and is accessible in that you only need a relatively basic understanding of Labour Party politics to get something from it. No, my sense of frustration and despair comes from the fact that your left with a clear impression upon completing the book that Ed Miliband should be a better leader than he actually is.
Countless times it’s clear that has the right skill set to be an effective and maybe even great leader; he is personable, empathetic and, on occasion, can show a flash of steel. In the book he is presented very much as being a campus favourite from the halls of Corpus Christi in Oxford to Harvard. He overcomes a slight ‘geeky’ quality and occasional awkwardness to become a star. Indeed, in the leadership campaign itself, he came from a long way behind to beat his elder brother, the stonewall favourite to succeed Gordon Brown and seemed to offer much promise that he would grow into being a Prime Minister in the making.
However, that promise has, at best, yet to be fulfilled. Instead of the air being filled with promise, it is thick with the fog of a permanent aura of crisis and/or incipient crisis which seems to constantly surround his leadership. So it is that even when things are going well, like they did during ‘Hackgate’, you know for a fact it’s only a passing phase. One of the reasons for this, I feel is that Ed has stopped doing what he does best, being an insurgent. In the book these are the times he really shines, when you really think this man is going places, and when he achieves and indeed, during ‘Hackgate’ we saw flashes of ‘Ed the Insurgent’, speaking truth unto power and really reaching out for the first time to connect with the popular mood. However, the moment passes and once again the old nagging doubts return.
Even Hasan and Macintyre (who obviously have a fondness for the subject of their work), conclude that;
He must apply the same sense of urgency and insurgency that chracterised his leadership campaign to the job of Party leader.
The implication, of course, being that they realise it is currently lacking. This is not as hard as it may sound, especially for a Labour leader of the Opposition facing a Cabinet of Old Etonians. Conservatives would scream ‘class war’ but the reality is that this Cabinet has nothing in common with the vast majority of the British public – working and middle class – and an insurgent Ed could captivate and connect with these people quite easily.
When he is not the insurgent, Ed is at his worst and that is recognised in the book. The authors rightly criticise his decision to vote loyally with the Party line over 90 days detention like charge, for example. They also seem to be skeptical of his appointment of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor following his leadership success as well. Appointing Johnson is obviously a reflection of another of Ed’s political foibles – his view that creating a coalition is more important than the relative success or failure of that coalition in achieving its aims and objectives. He really needs to learn that the Blairites will never love nor warm to him and the same pretty much applies to at least the former supporters of his elder brother, if not the man himself. As such, rather than seeking coalition with these people, he should seek their political marginalisation.
Johnson proved exactly that point. As is pointed out, rather than reward Ed with gratitude he threw his generous appointment (something Johnson never merited over the much better qualified Ed Balls) continually in his face. While the Blairites think there is a hope that one day return to a position of influence within the Party they will plot and scheme and do everything they can to bring Ed down. Ditto David Miliband’s erstwhile supporters. So, Ed has to show a flash of steel and extinguish all hope they may have on this score; they need to be forcefully reminded that Labour and the world has move on.
Only then will he justify his running in the first place. In his own words he ran because he felt he was the only man who could ‘move us on from New Labour’. Fair enough, that is a valid political conviction and yes, is reason enough to run even against your own brother. However, if he falls short of that Ed will be judged historically as having run purely for fratricidal reasons, merely to get one-up on his elder sibling. He will become reviled no matter what the truth of his motivations were.
He said he wanted to return Labour to its values but in the book its often seen that he keeps quiet and acts in a frankly unprincipled way. Sadly, often this has marked his leadership and you get the impression he too often takes stances not because he wants too but because he feels he has too. The ‘Red Ed’ tag thrown at him by David’s disconsolate supporters has, for example, become something of a knot he is constantly tying himself in. You get the impression he is so desperate not to be seen as ‘Red Ed’ that he does not always say the things he knows he should and frequently says things that deep down he must know he shouldn’t say. Ultimately, if he continues along this particular path he is only going to end up looking deeply unprincipled and opportunist and allying his own disillusioned ex-supporters with his sworn enemies.
So, the left needs not to be his cheerleader. He doesn’t need a cheerleader who reinforces his own foibles and tells him they don’t matter. He needs a frank and critical left that is more than prepared to shout him down when they think he is wrong. He needs a left which tells him it is time to break out of the circle mentality that the TB-GB’s schooled him in, to tell him that its ok to be himself and to tell him that there are some people that if he holds them tight then this will only allow them to sink the dagger deeper. If he doesn’t have this then the likelihood is that the potential of his leadership will never be anything more than that, and it is highly unlikely he will ever be Prime Minister of Great Britain. All the pain and personal heartache of doing what he did will then have been for nothing – Labour will be plunged into the unending dark of political decay and disrepair by the necromancy of the Blairites and rot in opposition under its dark spell. This will be a tragedy, not just for Ed Miliband but most of all, for the Labour Party and the country itself.