The trouble with Ed Miliband

By Richard Roberts

The trouble with Ed Miliband isn’t that he’s too intellectual and can’t communicate with ordinary people. It isn’t that he’s too socialist and in the pocket of the trades unions. It isn’t even that he looks like Wallace; nor that by allowing himself to be snapped eating a bacon butty, he unwittingly created the most embarrassing on-camera-moment for a Labour leader since Neil Kinnock fell over while walking on a beach with his wife.

And no, it isn’t that he stabbed his older brother – the man everyone assumed was the rightful heir to the New Labour throne – in the back.

The real trouble with Ed Miliband, and the reason he’s unlikely to be the next Prime Minister, is that he hasn’t got a Big Idea. Or rather, he’s got lots of potentially big ideas but isn’t able to pick one and stick to it. Intellectually, he’s a magpie.

In the age of spin-doctors and politics as PR-lite, the buzzword is “narrative”: what’s Ed Miliband’s narrative? We may laugh at UKIP voters who aren’t able to name a single one of the party’s policies, but even most close observers of Labour would be hard pressed to tell you what the essential characteristics of a 2015 Labour government would be.

In 2010, the Big Society was David Cameron’s Big Idea. It may subsequently have been shown to be a sham – something for which the Tories should be held accountable at the next election – but, at the time, Cameron and his team used it very effectively as shorthand for everything they stood for. It was the organising principle of Cameroon Conservatism.

Since he became Labour leader in September 2010, there have been many candidates for the part of Ed Miliband’s Big Idea.

First there was ‘Blue Labour’, the philosophical counterpart to Red Toryism, most closely associated with Ed’s fellow members of the North London leftie club, Maurice (now Lord) Glasman and David Goodhart. Blue Labour harked back to a pre-1945 version of Labourism that was sceptical about the state’s ability to solve every problem and placed a great deal of importance on social solidarity (and worried in this context about the impact of mass immigration).

Then came ‘pre-distribution’, a term coined by Yale professor Jacob Hacker in 2011. Hacker’s argument was that it makes more sense to wire greater equality into our economic system in the first place, rather than to constantly rely on government to rectify gross inequalities of outcome after the fact.

Finally, in his 2012 conference speech – widely considered to be one of his best as leader – Miliband went for the ultimate ideological kick in the balls to the Cameroon Conservatives. He adopted the mantle of their hero, the nineteenth-century Tory Prime Minister, dandy and royal sycophant, Benjamin Disraeli, claiming that Labour is today the ‘one nation’ party.

Any of these – Blue Labour, pre-distribution, One Nation Labour – would have done as the Big Idea for the Miliband era. But each has enjoyed a brief period in the spotlight and then been forgotten about.

Instead, in his much-derided 2014 conference speech, Ed opted for the ghastly and meaningless ‘Together’. For those listening carefully, there was one fleeting reference to ‘One Nation Labour’, compared with 47 ‘togethers’. But then, it’s difficult to tell how many of these were ‘Togethers’ (the Big Idea that Labour apparently now stands for) and how many were ‘togethers’ (the perfectly ordinary adverb).

Somewhere in Labour Party headquarters there is a drawer marked ‘good ideas we’re not quite sure what to do with’ that is full to bursting. Unfortunately, whoever was entrusted with the key to this drawer seems to have lost it.

The reason Labour currently looks unlikely to sweep to victory in 2015 isn’t that it has an intellectual – rather than a PR man – as leader. It’s that, right now, the Party appears to be intellectually bankrupt. If Miliband wants to avoid going down in history as the most inept Labour leader since Michael Foot, he needs to pick a Big Idea now – and then stick to it.

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