Thursday, 1 December 2011

Miliband the seer, Miliband the invulnerable

Last Thursday, Ed MIliband was speaking at the IPPR on the economy, doughtily willing that Labour’s alternative can soon be heard again, in light of Britain’s increasingly dreadful prospects. In spite of the response of many commentators, that here was a battle he couldn’t win, his words indicated that, on the contrary, he genuinely believes things are going his way on the economy and that Labour merely needs “one more heave”, as Dan Hodges puts it. He and Ed Balls need only keep saying the same thing, and the political tectonic plates will have shifted their way by the general election.

Never mind that Labour’s economic polling is awful and has shown little sign of shifting over the last year, in spite of the crisis. Never mind that the Tories have two fairly foolproof deflection strategies for this mess – blame Labour and blame Europe. Team Miliband is convinced that the tide is turning and it is just a matter of time.

It’s instructive to examine the psychology behind this. There seem to be two factors at play. One is about the vision thing. There are a few people in any generation – a very few people – who have the extraordinary gift of seeing the future. Not literally, like a soothsayer, but the visionaries: the Steve Jobses or the Thomas Edisons. Or the political figures who define a generation: the Mandelas, the Luther Kings, the FDRs, the Kennedys. People who see the trend lines in today’s thinking and can extrapolate them out, accurately, into the future, along with a road map. They anticipate, and they get it right. These people are extraordinary (not to mention usually pretty successful in their chosen field).

around Ed Miliband – understandably, or they would not be there – need to believe that he is one of these people. He has read the runes during his “Fresh Thinking” tour of Britain, and in the organic tea leaves brewed up by the Occupy movement, and has seen the future. It is a world after a paradigm shift: a public-demanded move towards “good” capitalism and away from “bad” capitalism (that same bad capitalism, for the record, which has awkwardly persisted for most of history). Since 1918 there have been six recessions, but arguably only one economic paradigm shift to the left, which followed the Second World War. But a war has not happened; an economic downturn has. It is, of course, possible that Ed is one of these visionaries. But it also seems unlikely, just as it seems unlikely that we are undergoing a marked sea change in public opinion (which, as Hodges has pointed out, appears by all accounts to be moving to the right).

is a second factor, which has kicked in since July this year: risk-taking. On phone hacking, Miliband made a decision to confront Rupert Murdoch which was genuinely brave. Perhaps even recklessly so, as we argued here, but he pulled it off, and all credit to him. Risk-taking is an important ability in a politican, and at that moment the often over-cautious Miliband Mk I changed completely.

in the same way that Team Miliband seems to have overestimated the impact of the economic crisis on people’s thinking, the New Statesman’s Rafael Behr observes, correctly, that it may also have read too much into phone-hacking and that really not that much has changed:
He made a difficult and brave judgement call - took a risk - and got it right. It was a turning point in his leadership. But Miliband and his team read more into it than that…If Labour could reverse the orthodoxy that said you have suck up to the Murdoch empire, what other orthodoxies of recent political memory might be ripe for reversal? It was an episode that emboldened Miliband and encouraged him to develop more broadly the language of "vested interests" and "ripping up the rule book" and "predatory capitalism" as expressed in his party conference speech and in last week's article in the Observer praising the St Paul's protest.
Nevertheless, since the summer Miliband has seemed compelled periodically to demonstrate that there are plenty more dotty ideas up his sleeve – and if you’ve read his Guardian piece on the St Pauls protests or witnessed his conference speech, you’ll understand – which he will happily take forward unprompted. Now, with this determination to follow his instincts, it seems clear that he is not going to be easily swayed or influenced by people outside the inner circle. But you can picture senior Tory strategists, reflecting on this, smiling to themselves as they recall Humbert Wolfe’s epigram on journalists:
You cannot hope to bribe or twist,
thank God! the British journalist.
But, seeing what the man will do
unbribed, there’s no occasion to.
On the one hand, they won’t be able to manipulate him, or catch him out in a moment of low cunning. On the other hand, they will reason, there’s probably no need.

It takes a lot of strength to convince those around you that you have the necessary vision, and that the risks you are taking will pay off. People who know Miliband well say he has a great deal of self-belief. And that’s a very good thing: it is undoubtedly a necessary condition for political success.

But it is surely not a sufficient one.

This post first published at Labour Uncut, and linked by Stumbling and Mumbling


  1. sighs heavily. It is not a "recession" it is a Depression. Rebranding with weasels words ain't going to cut it.

  2. Hmm. Not to be a pedant, but not sure there is any formally-accepted definition of Depression. Just a long recession. Anyway, it's not about to cause a once-in-a-lifetime sea-change in public opinion, much as we might like it too.


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