Ed Miliband’s latest speech on welfare pretty much capitulates to the Tories, just as Ed Balls has capitulated on the economy. Both have willy-nilly accepted a Tory ‘interpretation’ of the financial crisis, even though that ‘interpretation’ has been relentlessly political. How little austerity actually has to do with the economy or those on welfare was demonstrated by the hooting and hollering of the Tory front bench when Miliband was seen to give in; and by Iain Duncan Smith’s casual description of Labour as the ‘party of welfare’ as though that were self-evidently a bad thing. It is clear what Tory priorities are, and they are not the well-being of the people. Labour’s capitulation was both unnecessary and unwise.
We have been here before. I blogged unkind things about David Miliband when he was being log-rolled by the Blairite machine, as bathed in the blood of Tony, so brilliant, so cool, so je ne sais quoi as to be very nigh compulsory. The reality, when he didn't get the assured leadership, has been a sulking minimalist in the Commons, above all that low, grinding trouble.
Speeches at party conferences normally do not have a long life, since they are designed for immediate effect. Ed Miliband’s speech was an exercise in showmanship and self-projection and as such was fairly successful. Whether it will linger in the memory is another matter. But it rallied the troops and partly disarmed the press – which is as much as he could hope for. Miliband has two problems; himself and policy.
That Scottish independence or anything which seriously reduced Scottish representation in the House of Commons could be fatal for Labour is now the common coin of politics. Labour is heavily dependent on its Scottish and Welsh heartlands. It has won a majority of English seats only five times – 1945, 1966, 1997, 2001 and 2005 – but these were exceptional results partly dependent on a distribution of seats in England which favoured Labour and which the Tories are now busily ‘correcting’. Wales is already losing 10 of its 40 seats under existing legislation, and Scotland will lose more seats under almost any new political arrangement. Under independence, of course, it would have no representation in the House of Commons.
There is no inherent harm in the opposition defence spokesman accepting ministerial defence cuts. From a party committed to Trident replacement, it might be a faint, late virtue. There is every possible objection to coupling it with talk of rejecting populism (whatever that means here) and hinting at readier general acquiesence.
It’s slightly less than a week since my piece on Maurice Glasman and Blue Labour went to the printers, but slightly less than a week is a long time in the crazy circus that currently passes for British politics. Ed Miliband has won a victory of sorts by getting David Cameron to admit that he should never have hired Andy Coulson, but now he has the problem of knowing what to do about Tom Baldwin: if he gets rid of him, he rather diminishes the victory; if he keeps him, he allows the Tories to taunt Labour with being the party that hangs on to its News International insiders. Miliband’s riposte to questions about Baldwin in parliament today – that Baldwin’s line manager when he worked at the Times was Cameron’s education secretary, Michael Gove – is ingenious, but only adds to the sense that the story is descending into farce.
Ed Miliband’s enemies in the Labour Party are indulging in luxury: a pointless, expensive thing that only people with four years to spend can afford. Up to a point, they resemble John Major’s enemies in the Tory Party – a chorus of Viv Nicholsons who spent, spent, spent down to the penury of 165 surviving MPs in 1997. Those Tories had a reason, if an absurd one. They were hung up on the EU as a conspiracy by the heirs of Hitler to abolish England. The other motive for hating Major was devotion (in the High Church sense) to Margaret Thatcher, Queen and Martyr.
'If Ed Miliband doesn't provide more direction for his party and more definition for himself,’ Mary Ann Sieghart writes in today’s Independent, ‘he is in danger of ending up like William Hague.' She doesn’t mean he’ll be foreign secretary one day; rather that he stands no chance of being prime minister unless he manages to ‘project a political personality that engages voters’ imagination’. ‘People want to know what type of person he is and what motivates him,’ she says. Newspaper columnists have been complaining about Miliband along these lines since before he was elected Labour leader. And they couldn’t be more wrong.
Let me join the irked multitude queuing to tell Ed Miliband what to say. Never mind the economy. Let the slashing of the NHS do its own injury to the people slashing it. And, above all, let him forget about his ‘vision’. Why do politicians, a this-worldly, nicely calculating, main-chance-surveying lot, keep talking as if they were kin to Bernadette Soubirous? Why, too, do they (and for that matter footballers) endlessly invoke ‘passion’? Better to concentrate quietly on guessing right. To which end, I suggest that Miliband look at foreign policy, and specifically our relationship with the United States.
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.’
David Miliband, he of the ‘sad eyes’ after ‘betrayal’, has departed the front bench. He remains in the Commons, but on inactive service and as what? Brooding presence, focus of retribution to the betraying brother? Unencumbered by duty, he can now expect devotion from the Conservative press and offers of lavish employment. Compare him with Denis Healey, who spent six years as defence secretary and five as chancellor before being passed over for Michael Foot – nice man, wrong choice – in 1980.
The election of Ed Miliband as leader of the Labour Party is surely not as surprising as much of the media suggests it was. He may have started at the back of the pack five months ago but any half-serious candidate to the left of David Miliband had a good chance. Diane Abbott, who is definitely to the left of David, was not a serious candidate, and Ed Balls, who is probably to his left, could not escape from his relationship with Gordon Brown. What’s really surprising is that David should be thought to have been an inevitable successor to Brown.