Whatever your political views, it is always fascinating to watch a new political leader find their feet and find their voice. We saw Mrs Thatcher transformed from homely Home Counties pragmatist to a globe-trotting Iron Lady. We saw Tony Blair transmogrify from Bambi to Messianic Modernist. So what personality make-over can we expect from Ed Miliband? What are the limits on what he can do and say to re-invent himself and the Labour Party? How will he handle the media in the Internet Age? This are communications questions but they are ultimately about politics. This is a version of an article I wrote recently for Policy Network.
In the brief period since his surprise election as Labour’s new leader, Ed Miliband may already feel burdened with enough historical expectation: but here is some more. His problem is the problem of the European centre-left, but within even tougher parameters. The son of a great Marxist, the brother of a significant Blairite, Ed Miliband has turned away from those traditions.
Now he must put ideological and policy flesh upon his rhetorical assertion that he is the leader of a ‘New Generation’ of the liberal Left. In the face of a largely hostile media, what is the fresh story he can tell that will convince the public that he is a genuine alternative to the Coalition?
Miliband Junior must do this within the peculiar condition of the British public sphere. Its political institutions are still tribal in a society where tribes are losing loyalty. The national newspapers remain viscerally opposed to anything smacking of socialism to the extent that only one paper backed his party at the last election. [i]
The cry of ‘Red Ed’ that went up from the newspapers following his election may be indicative of the poverty of the editor’s imaginations. But it resonates in what is still a fundamentally conservative polity. Despite the accelerating decline of UK national newspapers’ sales, their scaremongering still frames much political discourse.
The BBC and other broadcasters provide a balanced alternative source of political information but it remains a constricted agenda on issues such as immigration, welfare, crime, tax and foreign policy.
There are also valid doubts about the character of the man. He has shown passion, intelligence and a gift for charming and ruthless campaigning. However, so far he has not yet produced any great policy insight or demonstrated an obvious ability to connect directly with the public. He speaks like he is, a political wonk. There is neither Brown’s heavy-weight intellectual seriousness nor Blair’s reforming, communicative genius.
But, for a moment, let him be his own man. Can he go on to evolve a vision that can provide an alternative to his own party’s recent past and to a relatively popular governing Coalition of liberal conservatism and conservative liberals?
The easy ground to occupy would be on the unionised, oppositionalist Left that ‘fights the cuts’ and blindly protects public sector interests. Ideologically, that Left is remarkably sterile and introverted. The threat of an attack on the underlying principles of the post-war welfare state has given it fresh energy within the Labour Party but after decades of exile it has completely failed to capture the wider public attention. In the midst of capitalism’s greatest crisis for nearly a century it has not dented the debate.
During his campaign Ed Miliband appeared to be cozying up to that constituency. It was union members not MPs or party members that gave him his majority. However, his first leadership speech and subsequent refusal to condemn outright the Conservative benefit cuts indicates that he is not remotely interested in going down that blind alley.
Instead, that speech suggested he wants to build a new alliance around liberal politics of identity. Family, work-life balance, values, community, environment were all were cited as he appeared to endorse Richard Layard’s political economy of Happiness. This attempt at an emotionally literate political language chimes with a much more diverse, individualistic contemporary politics where voters respond to issues of identity, values and character as much as ideology.
He is right to attempt a political discourse that reflects the diversity of the society with which it is trying engage. It is a human-centred formulation of politics that gives him some novel political space. However, no British political leader has been able to build a convincing national narrative without addressing core economic concerns.
Miliband’s narrative must return to reinvent the Blairite reform project around citizenship and the state. His story of a post-deficit Britain must provide an alternative to privatisation that encompasses choice, aspiration and diversity but within a mutualised, more egalitarian framework. The appointment of Alan Johnson as shadow chancellor is a significant step in that direction.
Ed Miliband appears to have fashioned a political version of Keat’s Negative Capability: the capacity for accepting uncertainty and the unresolved. He is a protean being who can adapt to his environment. This may be his greatest strength. He is in opposition. He can allow a discourse to evolve that enables him to attack the Coalition while simultaneously rebuilding a coherent story for the next election. Tactically, the last thing he needs to do is draw lines in the sand. But he must have a strategic direction that promise fiscal rectitude, sustainable growth and fairness.
The evolution of this ‘New Generation’ story must reflect the networked policies of the Internet age. I do not mean only that he can use the new communications technologies to reconnect with the party and the wider public. In the digital age that is a pre-condition of any successful political campaign.
But he must turn that into a real political vision. It is about how we do politics itself. Like the Internet at its best it must be open, transparent and inclusive. He must take the so-called weak links of the digital era and a post-ideological society and find new civic connectivity: through a devolved state, democratised welfare systems, investment in sustainable employment creation, and a critical but open attitude to globalised markets. In short, the man who has always been close to power must now surrender it in creative ways.
A version of this article was originally published in Policy Network
[i] Cf M. Scammel and C. Beckett in D.Kavanagh and P. Cowley (2010) The British General Election of 2010 (Palgrave)