Comment: Miliband is doing better than you think
Crediting Ed Miliband is one of the great unsung political arts. For two years, he has secured a series of impressive accomplishments in the punishing role of leader of the opposition, only to be met by indifference and jokes about fratricide.
Mention Miliband's name in a pub and most likely you will be met by a blank expression. If someone has heard of him it is usually because he competed against his brother for the leadership. Really politically advanced drinkers may mention he has the body language of a shy alien, too many teeth in his mouth, a curiously shaped head and no shoulders.
What you will not hear, but which deserves recognition, is that he prevented a internecine battle in the Labour party after its second-worst ever electoral performance. He avoided a party split along Blairite/Brownite lines for over a decade from tearing itself apart, as he moved on from the New Labour period. And he stopped it from falling into a new division between him and his brother in the process.
Labour under Gordon Brown had been a poll rating disaster, but Miliband quickly built a new double-digit lead for the party. The only area he lags behind the Tory leader is in the oft-cited personal rating category, but even here he has built a 31-point gain while David Cameron has fallen 25-points. Despite being considered a weak leader who struggles to make choices, Miliband confidently leads a relatively united party while the Liberal Democrats and Tories are dominated by whispers in corridors and embryonic leadership conspiracies.
Those who meet him invariably come away charmed and impressed. This morning, Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries called him "genuinely an extremely kind and really nice guy". She added: "Other polls tell us that people feel a greater 'connection' to Ed Milliband than to Cameron. That word, 'connection' should carry one humongous, red flashing warning light above it for us Conservatives." Even the dangerous narrative of his conflict with his brother has been relegated mostly to memory, although it is said that it's, understandably, had a devastating emotional impact on their mother.
On phone-hacking Miliband showed a willingness to attack Rupert Murdoch's News Corp, before it became entirely clear it was politically safe to do so. He made the right call, politically and ethically. In banking reform, he issued a demand today for a split of retail and investment functions together with other Vickers recommendations. If the coalition doesn't see it through, he promises he will. It's a good message, well made.
Miliband's first speech to conference was a much-derided attempt to put a full stop on the New Labour period, including a frank assessment of rising inequality, Iraq and civil liberties. It was meandering and over-long, but it was a seminal moment for a party which had to move on. It will never be taught in political science classes, but it fulfilled its function without alienating potentially dangerous ex-ministers more than was necessary.
Last year, his speech on predator capitalism prompted specific questions about which kinds of firms were morally responsible which he struggled to answer. Miliband says he has learned from that experience, but the speech itself reads much better in retrospect, where its rhetoric and philosophical assumptions have been adopted by those across the political spectrum, especially in light of the Libor scandal.
This year Miliband's team wants to use his conference speech to tell 'his story'. Whenever people mention the 'his story' strategy, I think of Iain Duncan Smith whining, but we should not judge. The Ed camp feel they have finally earned a hearing from the electorate and want to be the first to give their side of the story. The Tories, in a premature piece of campaigning which sensible strategists have raised eyebrows at, tried to get in beforehand with a poll and advert reinforcing the image that Miliband is weird and too left wing.
The left-wing attack, like the Red Ed jibe before it, will not work. If anything, polls show Miliband to be far closer to public opinion than the Tories are, even if voters still need to be convinced Labour can be trusted with the nation's purse strings. The 'freak' attack could work. Being seen as weird is a potentially fatal quality in a leader of the opposition. After all, 'Welsh windbag' essentially did it for Neil Kinnock. 'Something of the night' did the same for Michael Howard.
To counter the weird label, Miliband's team will release a party political broadcast on Wednesday highlighting his schooling. This is a double-edged sword. As the son of celebrated Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, it was resolutely state-funded in Leeds and north London. While that contrasts favourably with Cameron's Eton-shaped Achilles heel, it is not the end of the story. As the son of celebrated Marxist intellectual Ralph Miliband, the Labour leader's childhood was also deeply weird. Most of it was spent staring at the assorted elites of the British intellectual left sitting around his kitchen table plotting the overthrow of capitalism.
As Miliband put it in an interview for the Observer today: " I do remember meeting [Ralph Miliband's] friends after he died and they said: 'Ralph was such a great man. He'd be so sorry what's happened to you.' A sort of: where did it all go wrong? Where did you go off the rails? Sort of the equivalent of taking drugs."
Miliband's intellectual upbringing (his dad expected him to be an academic) explains his embrace of ideas and so-called gurus – the most recent writers influencing his ideas. It would, as everyone seems to realise, be a disaster for Miliband to use this conference speech to highlight pre-distribution (terrible word, solid idea) or predator capitalism (good word, good idea). There should be no 'isms' at all. Instead Miliband will tell his story, the comprehensive school story probably with a bit of added 'parents escaping from Nazism' and the 'British promise' of steadily increasing standards of living.
It would be a mistake for Miliband to drop the ideas-based approach entirely, however. Instead, he should adopt the mantra of the scriptwriter: 'Show, don't tell'.
It is encouraging Miliband is basing policy ideas on coherent political principles rather than a daily response to the front page of mid-market tabloids. But the reference to the idea only needs to be made at think-tanks, to a self-selecting audience of political freaks and obsessives. The 'client-facing' material, designed for tabloid exclusives and conference speeches, should be concrete policy ideas. Each policy announcement should be stamped with the philosophy ('creating responsible capitalism in the interests of the squeezed middle'), but it should not need to be spelled out in jargon-speak.
The Labour leader should not be complacent. While his ten-16-point lead seems impressive it is composed of many former Lib Dem and Tory voters who failed to turn up to the polling station at all in 2010. A bit of rain on the day and it could evaporate. Furthermore, Tories will make the 2015 campaign as presidential as possible, hoping Miliband will fail the 'can you imagine him as prime minister' test (which he probably will).
Nevertheless, Miliband is hugely underrated by the press and parliamentarians. He has shown steel where necessary and warmth where required. He has made the right political calls at points where it was far from clear how they would turn out. His polling is impressive and improving rapidly even where it currently appears vulnerable. After two years of underestimating Ed Miliband, it's about time commentators looked past the lack of shoulders and realised what they're dealing with.
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