Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Alas, Ed Miliband

During the Labour leadership contest, I was in the unusual position of being a Conservative who had the opportunity both to put a question to a leadership candidate and to influence the vote (courtesy of a relative's utter disinterest in their union vote - I advised Andy Burnham followed by David Miliband). I also know a fair number of Labour activists socially. Therefore I expected it to be interesting watching Ed Miliband attempt to establish himself at the helm of the recently rousted Labour Party and try to chart a new course for it.

Sadly, I was wrong. In the opinions of the Guardian, Daily Mail and ConservativeHome Mili-E's symbolic hundred days as leader have been a bland disappointment. The Mail go so far as to consider Miliband as Labour's IDS, which must surely be one of the most terrifying comparisons imaginable for a struggling party leader facing a potentially long stretch in opposition. The New Statesman is - as one might expect - more even handed in its approach, adopting for its article a format that requires it to find a merit to balance every blemish.

My personal opinion of Miliband is coloured somewhat by the event I attended at the University of Manchester for his leadership campaign. Ed had been in touch with the Students Union at Manchester before, including an interview with the student paper with pull quote "I'm in favour of people shouting at me in Parliament Square". Fantastic, I thought. A party leader who might be up for some real questions. And lo and behold, when the leadership campaign came around the event 'In Conversation with Ed Miliband' came to Manchester Student Union. Myself and many other students - of many political colourings - were looking forward to the event.

But it was not to be. Shockingly, the sentinels at the door - at the behest of Ed Miliband's minders - made their best efforts to prevent any students from other parties getting in, in direct contravention of Student Union policy. I myself was the only Conservative who was allowed to pass thanks to being friends with the Labour Students organising the event, alongside one very discrete Lib Dem who happened to work for the Student Paper. Not even getting into the room and finding a seat saved him from further harassment, as a particularly infamous minder and ex-Manchester student still tried to get him out, to no avail.

The question and answer session itself was disappointing: Ed was dependably populist in front of a filtered, deeply pro-Labour audience. Thankfully, the Chair was local MP Tony Lloyd rather than a student politician and I got selected to ask a question. My question was on Labour and Northern Ireland - essentially whether or not he agreed with both Andy Burnham* and David Miliband* that the time had come for Labour to consider organising in the province. Apparently a genuinely unexpected question, Ed Miliband dodged it, making a lot of smoke out of 'not wanting to upset the peace process' (a phrase he used about five times) to cover the retreat.

I was disappointed, not just by his lack of unionist commitment, inability to think on his feet or populist tendencies but more by the shocking way in which his team had sought to strictly and covertly control who was allowed into a supposedly open forum. And he continues to disappoint now that he's won. His New Year message still smacks of the same pure opposition, with few hints of alternative policy.

He displays the same lack of flair and inability to think on his feet. He shows the same tendencies towards populist oppositionalism without investing much time or thought on the new policy direction his party desperately needs. His election at the hands of a handful of trade unionists, against the wishes of party members and MPs, continues to undermine him. Most importantly, he continues to fail to reach out or appeal to voters outside the Labour faithful. Reaching beyond a party base is a skill, and if you're not born with it it needs to be learned. It doesn't look like his coterie of minders offered him any opportunity to do that on the road to office, and its telling now.

*Andy Burnham's original article in the Newsletter and David Miliband's short video to Northern Ireland members could not be located for reference.

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