What more does Ed Miliband need to do to be taken seriously as the next Prime Minister of Britain? He has been ahead in the polls since the start of last year, and the bookies favourite for longer. A geek? Maybe, but one who has a personal approval rating higher than David Cameron. A leftie? Certainly, and that’s why the orphaned Lib Dem voters feel so at home with him. But his real secret is that no one has the faintest idea what Labour, if elected, would do. We may well be entering the Age of Ed and the terrifying thing is that no one, not even the party leader himself, seems to know what it will mean. I look at this in my Telegraph column today. Here are my main points.
1. Plenty of Tory MPs are preparing for the age of Ed. It’s the biggest shift of the summer: since the proposed boundary review collapsed, the balance of probability lies with Miliband winning in 2015. Tory MPs who were last year hoping for promotion are this year focusing on keeping their constituency and surviving what they fear will be a bloodbath. You don’t hear the phrase ‘second term problem’ anymore. I know of one Cabinet member who has moved his family to London, in preparation for losing his seat. The Tories who used to talk about Osborne vs Boris 2019 are now talking about the race to be Leader of the Opposition in 2015. In my opinion, it’s way too early to tell. But MPs do love their mental chess, and for many the game has changed.
2. Yes it’s early days, but the Westminster voting system gives Labour a massive advantage. No matter what your opinion of Ed Miliband, bear in mind: he needs a 1-point lead to win a majority but Cameron needs a 7-point lead. Unreformed boundaries cement Labour’s unfair advantage. And coalition gives Labour the monopoly on anti-government votes. Thatcher won in 1983 because the Labour vote split when the SDP was created. Miliband may win in 2015 because that the Labour coalition coalesced around Miliband – not thanks to him, but thanks to Cameron and Clegg. The liberals are now back with Labour and the Lib Dems support has halved to about 9 per cent.
3. Yes, Ed’s no showman. But maybe voters have had enough of charisma. Miliband is doing well turning his weakness into strengths. ‘If spin doctors designed a politician, they wouldn’t design me,’ he said – a good line which, as Guido suggested at the time, was almost certainly designed by a spin doctor.
4. And let’s not forget Ed’s good points. CoffeeHousers may disagree, but I think Miliband’s strengths (his essential decency and honesty) have come across a little more in the last two years. He is impossible to hate, and that’s quite some weapon should the next election turn into a referendum on the government. The Tories ought not to let this happen, but as we learned in 2010 fighting elections is not the Cameroons’ strong point. Dull leaders are always mocked (“An empty taxi pulled up and Attlee got out” Churchill is said to have remarked) but sometimes the person with the least enemies wins. As Obama is finding out, lack of economic progress can speak very eloquently for itself.
5. This change in Ed’s fortunes will transform the Labour Party conference. Last year, lobbyists came to gawp at Labour’s misfortune. This year, the shadow ministers will be seen as tomorrow’s ministers: their words will matter. It’s a lobbyists’ (and unions) dream: a party unexpectedly heading for power but with no policies.
6. Milliband’s strategy has been to announce no policy, just abstract nouns. It’s all ‘predistribution’ etc, concepts so nebulous as to be meaningless. But the nitty gritty? There’s a free school conference tomorrow where head teachers will discuss, amongst other things, what would happen if Labour win the election. Will the 400 free schools be put back under council control, like the old grant-maintained schools? No-one has the foggiest idea.
7. Word is that Balls will sign up to Osborne’s pre-election spending plan. It would be a big concession for Balls, but it would serve to close down the deficit-denying debate and repeat the strategy which he and Brown used in 1996.
8. Two years into Cameron, we knew what he was about. He wanted radical welfare reform, Swedish school reform. He revered the family and wanted to cut unemployment. Two years into Ed and we know he wants to help the ‘squeezed middle’, whoever they are. It’s still just abstractions.
9. We can complain, but this low-definition is working out well for Miliband. He threw out the Policy Review boomerang in December 2010 and it hasn’t come back. Meanwhile, he has found out how well things can be without policy: voters can just project their frustrations on to the Labour Party. He might get away with this for quite some time. We in Britain are programmed to think of long swings of the pendulum. European politics may be in an era where these swings are faster, and shorter and where exasperation with the incumbent may enough to decide an election (most Eurozone countries have had a change of government in the last three years). Not Being Cameron may be enough to get Miliband elected.
10. Miliband may end up adopting positions his brother would have taken, and this will pain him. I’m told that Ed still asks himself: what would David have done? He wants to do it differently, to justify why he stood against his brother. The truth is that David’s brand of politcs – championing public sector choice, being suspicious of union power – is more electorally popular and in keeping with trends which voters see in all other parts of life. So why did Ed run? He may have five years in power to answer that question. And that’s a pretty scary thought.