Labour’s new leader made a smart choice in picking his shadow chancellor, now he must establish what it means to be a Milibanditeby Anne McElvoy / October 20, 2010 / Leave a comment
Rarely has the election of any political leader been greeted as sotto voce as that of Ed Miliband. Arriving in Manchester the morning after he pipped his brother David to the top post, I was struck by how stunned and funereal the party felt. If this is Labour when it’s in good spirits, heaven help us when it’s feeling a bit down.
The battle of the brothers never could have had a happy outcome. Tony Blair’s old aide Peter Hyman speaks for many on the party’s right of centre when he talks of the Ed victory being “a ghastly, egotistical flight of fancy.” The sense of entitlement in this outburst is one of the reasons Ed was able to run as an insurgent, despite having written the losing manifesto and hugged Gordon Brown close for many years. But Hyman has a point. Praising Tony Benn and Michael Foot as “giants” and being garlanded for “getting our party back” by Neil Kinnock are hardly promising auguries of success.
Moreover, after several conversations with Ed Miliband over the past few months, I get no sense that his gut politics are anything other than the orthodoxies of 1980s social democracy. He adheres to the stubborn belief that if a party crafts its appeal to lower middle-income deciles, that alone should see it into power. It’s rarely like that in practice. (See Peter Kellner’s column in this month’s magazine)
And yet he has not done stupid things in his first moves. He landed some blows in a confident first prime minister’s questions. And in choosing Alan Johnson as his shadow chancellor and effective running mate he has confounded those who thought he would opt for deficit-denier Ed Balls or his more emollient wife Yvette Cooper as the foil to George Osborne. Johnson was as surprised as anyone by this move. The most popular failed rock star in politics had assumed he would remain as shadow home secretary after the leadership contest, and even elicited a pledge to that end from David Miliband. Now Johnson has the task of defining a stance on the deficit that does not resemble the ostrich position.
As a game-opener Johnson’s appointment was smart. The young boss not only soothed anxieties that his “new generation” would be exclusive and callow, he also calculated that Osborne, although ferociously bright, can misjudge the mood and sound a bit over-fond of the role of slasher, as he did with his child benefit announcement. Johnson looks and sounds a lot more like the inhabitants of the ”squeezed middle” to whom Ed Miliband wants to appeal than anyone the Cameronians can muster. Pushing the Chairman and Madame Mao of Brownite Labour, the Balls-Coopers, into the home and foreign briefs leaves them little to rail against. At the same time, it keeps them far away from economic policy, where Miliband wants a freer hand.
The rest of the dispositions are the product of the new rules which mean that at least a third of the shadow cabinet must be women. We are treated to a brace of Eagle sisters, who are as hardwearing in Labour politics as their appeal is unclear, and middle-rankers like Meg Hillier with the energy and climate change brief. Many of the appointments are essentially local politicians who will thrive or fall on the national stage. Still, while Miliband has shown that he can do the jigsaw bit of his job, he lacks Blairite ballast on his top team to bring experience and constructive challenge—the real price of him ousting his brother.
From conversations with him, though, I would say he knows complacency would be fatal. The frustration at the “Red Ed” tag voiced in his first speech also shows a determination to challenge the moniker. And here lies the risk for the Tories: exceeding low expectations is a lot better than falling short of high ones.
One of the wiser Tory heads on this is Michael Ashcroft, who wrote a deftly provocative piece in the Sunday Telegraph warning that the opposition leader would not simply oblige Cameron by playing to his stereotypes. True, the noble lord’s motives are, as always, mixed. He is keen to highlight some of the shortcomings of Camp Cameron, as he felt his campaign advice was not sufficiently heeded. Yet he is on to something when he observes, “to expect Ed Miliband to leap obligingly into every trap is just wishful thinking.” The Tories must prepare for a backlash to the cuts and coalition turmoil that could give Ed the Unready a propitious start.
For his part, Ed must show he can make clear choices and not live up to his reputation as serial ambiguist. He says he opposes “waves of irresponsible strikes”—as opposed to one-off, perfectly reasonable ones? Come the day, we won’t want to know whether Miliband thinks something is “reasonable” —we’ll want to know which side he’s on.
One consequence of the five-year term is that no party is going to stick with a leader who isn’t seen as a winner of more than one election. So Miliband can’t just hang around being oppositional. He must start to define what it now means to be a Milibandite—that most elusive of taxonomies.