Thursday, 7 July 2011

Marking Milliband...

While all the sad obsessives on try and get their heads and thoughts around the News of the World phone-hacking scandal, it has at least spared the rest of us having to endure their infantile posturing on the question of Labour leader, Ed Milliband. The routine and almost daily denunciation of the Labour leader has passed for the moment so it’s probably a good time for more coherent comment.

Any political party leader has a tough task – going in to the job after losing an election is doubly difficult, going into the job after losing an election following thirteen years of Government is as close to a thankless task as you can get – just ask William Hague or even Edward Heath.

Labour in 2010 was, like the Conservatives in 1997, intellectually exhausted – extended periods in power does that. Intellectual renewal in office is impossible – time for reflection and reconsideration is needed and that requires time outside the daily detritus of Government.

It takes parties who have been in Government for a long period time to acclimatise to Opposition. The Conservatives arguably took six years before they began to think seriously about returning to Government – Labour, which has more experience of Opposition and probably manages the culture of Opposition better than the Conservatives, won’t need that long but they will need some time.

Nobody is listening to Labour’s policies or ideas at the moment – the next election is the best part of four years away and there’ll be plenty of time for that later. Thinking can go on behind the scenes but what then is the principal task of Opposition? It is NOT to defend what went before – there’s no point, it’s happened. It is to hold the new Government to account for its actions and its legislation even if there isn’t much of a counter-argument present.

There is a clear schism between that section of the electorate which broadly supports “the cuts” including those who think they don’t go nearly far enough and those completely opposed to any kind of public expenditure reduction and reduction in the terms and conditions of public sector workers. There are about 40% in each camp with 20% broadly on the fence.

Now, when the TUC organised its latest round of public sector strikes, Ed Milliband, despite being sponsored by UNITE, refused to back the action. Some criticised his Blairite attempt at triangulation but I thought it was clever politics – the 40% backing the strikes have nowhere else to go politically and for the Labour leader to sound cautious and to be seen to be rising above the militants is probably good politics for the 20% of fence sitters. With Cameron looking vulnerable due to his relationships with News International, Milliband has an opportunity to sound and look Prime Ministerial and while that won’t count for much now, it stores up credit for later.

Mistakes have been made and the comparison with his brother David is going to be a problem until and unless there is reconciliation but after barely a year in the job, Ed Milliband deserves far more credit than the Conservative partisans on politicalbetting will offer. Compared with William Hague in 1998, Ed Milliband already looks like a towering political figure. One thing he will need to consider is the party’s future relationship with the Liberal Democrats. There’s no guarantee the Coalition will continue after 2015 but one way to ensure that it does would be for Labour to reject any and all dealings with the party.

The fact is Labour may not win an overall majority next time and unless enough progress is made to make a second Conservative – Liberal Democrat deal impossible, Labour might find itself winning more seats but remaining out in the cold.

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