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Make for the Cliff Edge

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Ed Miliband’s well-wishers, his ill-wishers and the press have all made themselves clear: the Labour leader must assemble a bright, coherent and costed programme, as much of it as indelibly precommitted as possible. And Miliband has obliged, telling the party’s national policy forum on Saturday that ‘the strategy that says wait for them to screw it up, simply be a strong opposition, is not a strategy that is going to work for us. We need to do that hard thinking of our own.’

The motives of the ill-wishers in his party are clear. They are loyal to the nearest thing we shall see to the Stuart Cause of 1714, the other Miliband. Their advice is to drive hard, ignoring blind corners, and make for the cliff edge. No simpler way of doing this can be imagined than the rapid running-up of a clear policy document to be unpicked by experts, Tories and skulking Blairists.

But what about the press? Almost every sounder-off in red-top or Journal of Record has demanded detail, immediately: ‘A plan now or you’re finished.’ And if you respond? John Smith was urged to do a shadow budget for the 1992 election. The Sun claimed his proposals would hurt ‘policemen, nurses and skilled manual workers’, and Labour lost. Idly declining the task could have made all the difference.

The last person a sensible politician should listen to is a journalist. It didn’t use to be like this. Nobody nagged Attlee for chapter and verse when he started transforming the country – though, as it happens, he had both. Nobody fussed Churchill when in 1951 he left things much as they were. Lord Beaverbook notwithstanding, journalists then didn’t have the authority.

In that soothing era, politicians didn’t talk much: something pre-checked for the Commons, a few words to a constituency dinner, with the press barred and the interesting bits left out of the release. The rest was (nearly) silence. TV interviews, when they happened, were conducted by Kenneth Harris, the questions soft and Mr Harris grateful. I blame Kennedy. From him we got personality politics, the raising of interest which became curiosity which became assured cheek, then prescriptive right. Journalistic appetite has grown with what it feeds on. So if newsrooms and leader-writers’ conferences want a self-injurious Labour policy, Miliband must provide one.

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