Comment: Some new year's advice for Ed Miliband

Richard Heller: 'The future is vacant political territory.'
Richard Heller: 'The future is vacant political territory.'

First things first: Don't complain about media bias – even if you're right.

By Richard Heller

Dear Ed,

You are probably sick of advice on how to lead the Labour party. But it goes with the job and remember that most of it comes to you free from people who really want you to win the next election. In that spirit, here are my suggestions for 2012.


One, never complain about unfair media coverage. Even when that's true it makes you look like a loser. Concentrate all your energy on making news that is worth covering, and if the mainstream media continue to ignore it, bypass them – that gets easier all the time.

Two, it may sound a small thing but make sure that your mail gets answered promptly and competently. Make all your shadow ministers do the same. That is not happening now. How can you hope to reach voters in general if you do not even communicate with the ones who actually want to hear from you? Of course letter-writers are a minority among voters, but one that is politically engaged and one which influences the attitudes of others. Ignoring them is bad manners and bad politics.

Three, have a setpiece battle with an unpopular enemy. Tony Blair was brilliant at this, although sadly, he chose all his targets from within the Labour movement. Why not do what Blair never had the nerve to do, and confront some of the party’s natural enemies (remember the lift you got when you turned on Rupert “Stinker” Murdoch)?

Four, don't get indignant with David Cameron at Prime Minister's Questions. It builds his authority and weakens yours. Stay cool and contemptuous. Use each session to establish him as a lightweight who simply is not on top of big issues. Visualise him not as prime minister but as a variety entertainer who's gone on too long, or as a dodgy timeshare salesman with an offer no one believes. Present him in these terms (many of his own MPs secretly agree).

Five, while avoiding indignation, don't be afraid to show passion. Tell the British people what drove you into politics and why you need and deserve power. You must have wanted your job passionately – you fought your own brother to get it. Why? Fifteen months later, nobody knows.

Six, own the future. This is vacant political territory. David Cameron's government has no economic purpose except cutting the budget deficit. This is an abstract objective, because the budget deficit is simply a gigantic number which means nothing to voters. The government is actually failing to cut it, but even if it were successful it has not given voters any positive reason for doing so – only the imagined terrors of turning into Greece or Italy. David Cameron has offered no vision of post-deficit Britain. Worse still, his performance at the EU summit made it clear that his only enduring priority is the financial sector. He has no plan to end our economic dependency on financial services: on the contrary, he wants Britain to remain a giant car park for other people's money.

This is your opportunity. Seize the future. Don't just tell the middle classes to feel sorry for themselves, but give them some reason to hope that the country will be a better place after their pain. Clem Attlee achieved this, in far harder times than now. Warn the middle classes bluntly that you cannot promise them any short-term gains in their living standards. They know that already, and David Cameron has exploited this much better than you and Ed Balls.

So lift voters' sights away from the deficit and talk about the big issues which determine the country’s future and have an impact on voters' personal lives. How can we make a living in the world and create fulfilling jobs for our people? How can we provide income and care for an ageing population? How can we meet our long-term energy needs and resist climate change? (I am surprised that you have not said more about these issues already: you used to be in charge of them and could speak with real authority). How can we create a healthy population (instead of tinkering endlessly with the NHS)? How can we give people, at home and abroad, a realistic hope of lifting themselves out of poverty?

There are many more big problems you could mention but that is enough for voters to cope with at one go. Having set them out, warn people that they cannot be solved without large-scale investments and adjustments to the way they live. Promise that you will make the richest people make the biggest adjustments and meet the biggest costs, but warn that there are not enough of the richest people to bear the full load. Steal David Cameron's phrase: we really are all in this together.

Having set out the problems, and given that general warning, show that you personally have ideas for overcoming them. Put your name on a series of big-picture plans for the country’s future: Ed Miliband's plan for health… for old age… for energy…

Above all, give us Ed Miliband's plan for the economy. It must be something far more comprehensive than Ed Balls's five-point plan for jobs, which is not a long-term plan at all but a random package of short-term measures. Ed Miliband's plan needs to take in the future of the European economy, and indeed the world's. It must offer workable means to tame financial markets and control capital flows. It needs to tackle the huge apparatus of tax avoidance and secrecy which have turned taxation into a voluntary act for giant businesses and the super-rich. It needs identify new and sustainable sources of jobs and growth.

To steal yet another phrase from David Cameron, you need to be the Man with A Plan for the country's future. Achieve this and almost all your other problems will disappear. Except one. No matter how successful you are, some people in your party will always think it could do better with another leader.

So my final piece of advice for 2012 is to use the stairs rather than the lift. 

Richard Heller is a former adviser to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman. His unsolicited advice was ignored by eight previous Labour leaders, as were his novels, of which the latest is The Network.

The opinions in politics.co.uk's Comment and Analysis section are those of the author and are no reflection of the views of the website or its owners.
 

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