Miliband’s plan for power is putting his party back on course

April 2, 2011 - 0:0

It is growing increasingly hard to resist a grudging admiration for Edward Miliband. He has emerged as a ruthless, talented and effective Labour leader. Less than one year after his party’s worst election result in a quarter of a century, it is back on its feet, and enjoying a steady lead in the opinion polls.

Indeed, the most recent poll, from YouGov, is particularly striking. Labour scores 45 percent, a full 10 percent ahead of the Conservatives at 35, with the Lib Dems on 9. If that result were duplicated at a general election, with constituency boundaries intact, Miliband’s Labour would enjoy a formidable majority, of approximately 100, over all the other parties.
Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats would be completely destroyed – if they were lucky, they might manage nine or 10 seats, their worst result since the Seventies, when Jeremy Thorpe and Cyril Smith held sway and the party was a national joke.
Admittedly, Miliband still gets a moderate press. But this should not worry him.
Almost all Opposition leaders (Tony Blair is a very rare exception) get roughed over in the media. More important at this stage, morale within Labour is surprisingly high and Miliband, who has been in charge for a fraction over six months, has established his authority as leader.
How has he pulled this off? While not personally prepossessing, Miliband is a very good man-manager and highly intelligent.
Above all, he is the master of interest-group politics, one of the acknowledged keys to electoral victory in the 21st century: nobody at Westminster does this half as well.
This has been evident from a very early stage. As a cabinet office minister during the Blair years, Miliband was responsible for the voluntary sector.
Before long, he had Britain’s charities eating out of his hand. Promoted to energy secretary by Gordon Brown, he repeated the trick: the green lobby loved him to bits. This skill in handling special interests really paid off, however, when he ran for Labour leader last summer. Few gave him a chance. But displaying silky charm, he convinced the trade unions that he, not Ed Balls, should be their candidate.
Now, Miliband is adapting these skills to Opposition. He guesses that the Coalition is about to enter a period of unpopularity and is determined to make the most of this. First of all, he has nailed down the unions.
This is essential because, before everything else, Edward Miliband knows that he must have a political and financial base. In addition, the unions provide him with protection: with their support, he is impregnable against internal rivals. This explains the open-door policy for Brendan Barber, the TUC general secretary; Dave Prentis, the Unison leader; Mark Serwotka, the head of the civil service union; and many others. There were those who criticized Miliband’s decision to speak at last Saturday’s TUC rally in central London. He had no choice.
Yet the Labour leader is not stupid. He understands extremely well that union backing alone will not propel him into Downing Street. He needs other allies. That is why he has assiduously set about creating what the American civil rights leader Jesse Jackson called a rainbow coalition.
Using those silky man-management skills of his, Miliband is hard at work bringing together every individual, organization and quango that is disenchanted with the Cameron/Clegg coalition: the increasingly noisy arts lobby, the police federation, the feminists affronted by David Cameron’s pro-family pronouncements, human rights groups, his old friends in the charity sector and among the greens.
Individually, none of these lobbies may count for that much. Miliband calculates that, skilfully deployed, they are capable of becoming a solid and formidable alliance, capable of sweeping him to victory at the next general election.
The third part of the Miliband strategy is local government. The Labour leader is conscious that he is a career politician with no real life experience away from Westminster. He knows that Labour must build up credibility if it is to win the general election, and that a strong track record in local government will play a large part in this.
Happily for Labour, it is set to make huge advances in the local elections on May 5: the party is likely to win nearly 1,000 seats as it is propelled to power in city halls such as Sheffield and Birmingham. Meanwhile, the Lib Dems face obliteration. In so far as they retain power at all, it will be in coalition with Labour.
This is the likely outcome not just in great cities such as Birmingham, but also the Scottish Parliament.
This idea is crucial: Liberal Democrats will find themselves simultaneously sharing power with Labour locally, and the Conservatives nationally. Edward Miliband will work hard to make sure they find his party the more congenial.
-----Miliband’s strategy
This brings me to the fourth element of Edward Miliband’s strategy. He knows that Nick Clegg has become painfully isolated from his rank and file, and he is determined to do everything he can to make this isolation terminal. This is what made Tuesday morning’s rally of the Alternative Vote campaign such a lethal event.
Clegg, who has been leading a trade mission in Latin America, was absent. In any case, he would not have been welcome, since Miliband has flatly refused to campaign alongside him. But on the platform alongside the Labour man were Green leader Caroline Lucas, former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy and Tim Farron, the Lib Dems’ president and the bookmakers’ favorite to succeed Clegg.
Each of these three – Lucas, Farron, and Kennedy – have far more in common with Edward Miliband than they do with Nick Clegg. Indeed, it is entirely plausible to envisage each of them as a member of Miliband’s first Cabinet.
If the Coalition collapses – and it is much less likely to endure for the full five years that David Cameron and Nick Clegg hope and conventional wisdom maintains – the dangerously cross-party campaign in favour of AV will have played a potent role.
Fundamentally, there is only one key dividing line in British politics today: the Coalition’s plan to bring the national accounts back into balance in four years’ time. Ranged against this are the Labour Party, the majority of the Lib Dem rank and file, and Edward Miliband’s noisy rainbow coalition.
Many will accuse the new Labour leader of dishonesty, irresponsibility, even of recklessness. All of these charges are fair, reasonable and very easy to prove. But his strategy is nevertheless entirely sound. He would not be the first politician to place himself at the head of a party of protest and go on to win a general election.
Furthermore, he deserves our gratitude. For the past two decades, no great issues have divided the rival political parties. All general elections since 1992 have concerned tiny and sometimes indiscernible differences: British politics has been about capturing a small number of floating voters in the centre.
Edward Miliband has changed that. Next time Britain goes to the polls, the electorate will have a clear, honest choice. Labour will offer a powerful state, higher taxes, high public spending and great weight accorded to the producer interest.
The Conservatives and their remaining Lib Dem allies will advocate the greater freedom and responsibility that come with a smaller state. It is quite impossible, as things stand today, to judge which case the voters will prefer.
(Source: Daily Telegraph