John Harris

Journalist & Author

Ed Miliband’s leadership will be lonely, but his politics are sound | John Harris

Of the 49 people who ran for the shadow cabinet, only nine backed this Miliband. He must not let this dilute his radicalism

On the final day of the Tory conference, after such a wobbly week, the in-house branch of Blackwell’s had a sudden run on biographies of Mrs Thatcher. I duly queued and bought the last one on the shelves, though not for quite the same reasons as the nostalgic faithful. In the first volume of John Campbell’s Thatcher history, Grocer’s Daughter to Iron Lady, there lurked exactly what I was looking for, in an account of what happened when she unexpectedly took the Conservative leadership: “She was very conscious of the weakness of her political position, a little frightened of her own inexperience and the heavy responsibility which had suddenly been thrown on her, and well aware of the formidable combination of habit, convention and vested interest that was ranged against her.”

Stifle all guffaws and bear with me, because I am about to compare the Blessed Margaret with Ed Miliband. Obviously, let’s not even go into the stuff of background and personal style. But in terms of the hostility of party establishments, radical instincts, and the initial loneliness of their respective leaderships, 1975 and 2010 have at least a few things in common.

Can you believe the slurry that has been poured by some Labour-aligned people over Ed Miliband’s head? In this week’s Tribune, a story links the birth of the term “Red Ed” to Peter Mandelson. And why are supposedly progressive voices citing primogeniture, as if Ed stood outrageously in the way of his brother rather than taking his place in a field of five? When David’s hopes were dashed, why were the more moronic parts of the commentariat yakking on about “a profound personal tragedy”?

And now listen to the noise: in last Sunday’s Observer, the former Blair insider Tim Allan launched into the new leader, and took issue with his angst about the widening pay gap, claiming it gave the impression he was “against success”. Allan is the very wealthy MD of a PR firm whose client list includes Tesco, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s and BT. It’s not hard to choose a word for his kind of position: “derelict” will do me.

Miliband’s politics are shot through with an insight that eluded the Labour leadership for the duration of the party’s time in office: that from the malign effects of immigration, through our corrosive long-hours culture to the decline of British towns, Labour has long been “naive about markets”. Unfortunately this elemental idea still either eludes or annoys far too many high-ranking Labour parliamentarians. The result? Of the 49 people who ran for the Labour frontbench, only nine chose Ed as their first leadership preference. A similar isolation defined Thatcher’s experience in 1975: as Campbell pointed out, her candidacy was opposed by almost the entirety of Ted Heath’s shadow cabinet.

Which brings us to where the comparisons break down, and what worries some of Miliband’s confidantes. From the off, Thatcher was shored up and advised by such allies and outriders as Keith Joseph, Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson. Every bit as important was the presence of her one-time rival Willie Whitelaw, who hardly carried a copy of The Road to Serfdom in his briefcase but came to play a vital role in steadying the Tory ship.

Bluntly put, even in the wake of the shadow cabinet election, Ed Miliband still has no Willie. Some of his circle saw Alan Johnson taking that role, but his seditious conduct since the result – questioning Ed on crime and student finance – rules him out. Harriet Harman might be up for the job, but her reach does not extend to the hostile elements. For a matter of hours David Miliband was tipped for the gig, but those hopes soon disappeared. Moreover, though Ed has a sure grasp of his intended direction of travel, he lacks the likes of Howe or Joseph – few people around him feel it nearly as deeply as he does.

So, what to do? Ed Miliband has staunch supporters – Peter Hain, Hilary Benn, John Denham, Sadiq Khan – but, Hain apart, they may not have the heft to make a crucial difference. More promisingly, among the capable faces whose jobs will be announced shortly, there are people whose social-democratic instincts are palpably stirring after all those years of largely keeping quiet: Yvette Cooper, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham (though Balls will need managing, to say the least).

The biggest question, though, is whether he has the country right. On the last day of the Labour conference, I made a Guardian film in the Mancunian suburb of Altrincham, where the people Miliband wants to speak to (and for) were everywhere: short of time, worried about the future, sickened by what had happened when a vast shopping complex half-killed their town centre.

Think about what is about to hit so many of these people: in the context of long-stagnating incomes, the dreaded effects of all those cuts. And then picture a prime minister who so little understands them that he stood up in Birmingham, evoked Lord Kitchener, and exhorted them to somehow carve out hours they simply do not possess, and become special constables, set up their own schools, start up their own businesses, and more.

These are the people Ed Miliband calls the “squeezed middle”: modern successors to a crucial part of the coalition that kept Mrs Thatcher in power for so long. The question for Labour is whether the intervening two decades have so turned things around that it is social democracy that will give them a voice. Their new leader may have problems, but on this score, he’s made a pretty impeccable start.


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