John Harris

Journalist & Author

We can’t keep treating party leaders like football managers | John Harris

Ed Miliband faces a wall of cant, ideological hostility and media silliness. Labour shouldn’t be fazed by this kind of hounding

Fancy that, something going right for Ed Miliband. At today’s Prime Minister’s Questions he managed as good a performance as his first and pulled off a coup: Labour’s first successful go at mocking the more absurd aspects of David Cameron’s back story. The reference to student years spent “hanging around with people who were throwing bread rolls and wrecking restaurants” was a creditable zinger; also, watch for serial reprises of the Miliband line about the luxury life on “Planet Cameron”.

But let’s not get too carried away. As the fun in the Commons got started, the Evening Standard newspaper was running a story headlined “Plotters give Ed Miliband until May to prove himself”, thus maintaining the low hum of mischief that has followed the new Labour leader since mid-November. Just listen: his less than loyal “enforcer”, Alan Johnson, who has lately been in the unique position of being inside the tent, pissing in, could be lined up as a possible successor. Or maybe it will be the brother Ed so cruelly defeated, who has reportedly been lunching all the right journalists. “Ed Miliband has no style, no substance,” says the Daily Telegraph; “Ed Miliband faces being sucked down the plughole,” reckons the Mail.

As a case study in the near insane machinations of modern media, this hysteria takes some beating. It underlines the fact that way too much political coverage consists of a stupid mixture of arrogance and neurotic impatience, which is coming close to putting politicians on the level of Big Brother contestants.

Underlying this are the criteria by which post-Blair leaders are judged. Ideally, you must be fortysomething, achingly metropolitan and comfortable on the set of This Morning – but also gifted with two even more important attributes: an eagerness to define yourself against your own side and convictions so hazy that you will be able to pirouette across the political spectrum at the behest of forces you will accept are much more powerful than you.

If any of these are missing, turbulent times await – which is why Britain now goes through party leaders like some football clubs go through managers. The facts are sobering: including “caretakers”, there have been no less than 10 in the last five years.

With his party staring into the electoral void as he prepares to vote against the government’s plans for higher education, the venerable Menzies Campbell is somebody I have been thinking about lately. When he was hounded from the Lib Dem leadership in 2007, one loyal blogger wrote: “The story had already been written: Ming was too old; the young Turks were waiting in the wings; the Lib Dems were being squeezed … and if we did not dump our leader soon we would crash to a defeat that would be worse than anything since the SDP merged with the Liberals in 1988.” Now consider a counterfactual – Campbell hanging on, sticking to the idea that the Lib Dems were a party of the centre left, and steering well clear of coalition with the Tories. There are Lib Dems, I am sure, who would kill for that version of the present.

Going further back, imagine if William Hague had not bowed to those voices who claimed that his face would never fit and had stayed on as Tory leader after the Conservatives’ inevitable defeat in 2001. His maturing into the brilliant politician he is today would have brought a few more benefits than the hurly burly of the Iain Duncan Smith-Michael Howard period; conceivably, the Tories might have found their feet much earlier than 2006. Note also that nobody much liked Margaret Thatcher when she became Conservative leader. As one of her biographers put it, she was faced by “a mixture of scepticism, curiosity, and snobbish condescension, shading into latent or outright hostility” and “little belief that she would be leader very long”; and her first performances at PMQs were deemed less than brilliant. Had today’s rules applied then, perhaps even she wouldn’t have lasted.

Back to reality, anyway. Ed Miliband still faces a wall of cant, silliness and ideological hostility dressed up as rational analysis. My favourite bit of invective was a leader in the Sunday Times on November 28: “He has lived a life far removed from those of ordinary people … He has grown up in the jargon-filled world of the political insider who would struggle to have a conversation with an ordinary voter in the pub.” This from a newspaper that rarely seems to think such thoughts about Cameron and Clegg, and which heartily backed the elder Miliband for the leadership without pause for thought – though he, as is well known, left north London as an infant and grew up in a pit village.

Here are some things you may have missed. In recent polls Labour has been ahead by as much as five points (the prompt for the Standard story was one that put them – oh, woe! – at 39% to the Tories’ 42%). And far from being endlessly kicked around by Cameron at PMQs, Miliband has scored some direct hits. His three questions about the coalition’s attack on the school sports partnership undoubtedly played the largest role in Cameron’s announcing a rethink. When he challenged the PM about why he had put a “vanity photographer” on the public payroll, he was met with camped-up Tory groans, though they took remedial action soon enough.

But for those hounding Miliband, such small wins mean nothing. They want sparks, preferably caused by the leader taking on his own party. They desperately desire – but of course – a “clause 4 moment“. In truth, for the more imbalanced minds among them nothing will do, save the resurrection of their beloved Blair and Labour’s continued passage so far to the right that it would do awful damage to our democracy.

In 2004 the journalist John Lloyd elegantly characterised the modern journalistic impulse: “I want a disaster to happen near me, with no other journalists present; I want things to go spectacularly wrong, and for someone to tell the inside story of it to me only; I want, at least, violent personality clashes which can be presented as explanations for public policy. And when I have this nugget, which no one else has or no one else has as fast, I wish it to be a cannon ball, blasting its way into the attention of a distracted audience.”

As evidenced by those voices claiming the Labour party might again turn inward and move on to its third leader in four years, this rings truer than ever. Labour should bear one thing in mind: to listen to such noise invites not salvation, but the politics of the madhouse.

john.harris@guardian.co.uk

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