Saturday, 1 January 2011
Ed Miliband's challenge in 2011
This is my editorial commentary which opens the new Fabian Review, which is published on January 5th. The issue focuses on challenges for Ed Miliband's policy review and previews the Fabian New Year conference on Saturday week. NB: The Fabian Review cartoon is copyright of Adrian Teal. Any enquires about image reproduction rights please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Party leaders will never be in want of unsolicited advice. Ed Miliband rightly argues that a party which polled just 29 per cent of the vote after 13 years in office should open everything to scrutiny, and begin a policy review from a "blank page". In rewriting the script, he should welcome more open debate, and disagreement too, wherever that is constructive.
The leader must persuade his party to embark on a journey of change. The initial contours of his thinking make strategic sense but require public animation: the need to regain economic credibility, while developing a post-crash political economy; drawing on Labour's own mutualist traditions to develop a less statist agenda, while defending the necessary role of government from reckless retreat; a party which is secure about its own mission of a fairer and more equal society, and so is able to operate more conifdently in a more plural political environment.
There is no off-the-peg model of party leadership for Miliband to emulate which fits Labour's challenge today.
Tony Blair, from 1994 and 1997, was the most successful post-war opposition leader. Miliband can learn much from how the early Blair made a resonant public case that Britain was too divided and fractured. But much heavy lifting had already been done for Blair before 1994, as the Kinnock policy review ditched the 1983 platform; John Smith's OMOV victory, which was a bigger risk than replacing clause four, and the emergence of a new generation of Labour women.
After four successive defeats in 1992, much Labour opinion shared an analysis of the barriers to electability. In 2010, after three victories and a heavy loss, there is not yet any shared analysis of what needs to change.
Ed Miliband's position rather more resembles that Margaret Thatcher on becoming Tory leader in February 1975, inheriting a Shadow Cabinet which had overwhelmingly supported Ted Heath. She did not define Thatcherism in 100 days: her most important public engagement in her first months was to campaign for a Yes vote in the referendum which kept Britain in Europe. Thatcherism took shape much later, especially after the 1981 purge of the "wets" from the Cabinet. Ed Miliband's instinctively more collegiate approach to leadership should be welcomed by a party disfigured by factional conflict.
David Cameron's party leadership offers Miliband as many lessons in failure as in success. Cameron's bold first hundred days, which focused on photo opportunities designed to change the Tory brand, helped to get his party a hearing. Four years later, the public remained unclear as to what the Tory leader had anything to say. 74% of voters in 2010 agreed it was time for a change of government, yet only 34% thought Cameron had made his case for change. In circumstances more favourable to the opposition than 1997, Cameron won only 3% more than Michael Howard had in 2005. He squeezed into Downing Street by default.
Tory commentators who say that the next election is in the bag for Cameron have never explained how he failed to win the last one. The Tory leader was kept awake by the strength of focus group findings that the Tories, in a crisis, would stick up for the rich. For all of the coalition sunshine of May, has the government's austerity agenda done more to challenge that perception or to reinforce it?
So there is all to play for in 2011. Labour begins the year slightly ahead in the polls, with one-third of LibDem voters having switched in six months. Labour's challenge - to construct an alternative and persuade people to choose it - remains great. It is not a challenge for the party leader alone.
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