By Andrew Gimson
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The Labour Party finds itself in the disconcerting position of being on only 35 per cent, or a mere six percentage points ahead of the Tories, in the latest poll published in the Observer. Questions are raised once more about Ed Miliband's leadership. Hurtful comments are made even by pundits of a left-wing disposition. Rafael Behr, political correspondent of the New Statesman, suggests there are "two possible reasons" why no one seems to know what Miliband would do if he became Prime Minister: "either he is keeping it a secret, or he has no idea himself".
It seems to me quite possible that Miliband has a masterplan which he is not yet ready to unveil. In politics as in infantry warfare, there is much to be said for not shooting until you can see the whites of their eyes. Miliband may in the fulness of time stand exposed as a master strategist who lulls his opponents into defenceless proximity before slaughtering them.
If Miliband is not just going to allow himself to be dragged along on George Osborne's coattails, and intends at some point to commit Labour to spending more than the present Government is doing, it may well be astute of him to wait for Osborne's policy to become even more unpopular than it is now.
But delay comes at a price. Osborne's policy might (I know this is not a fashionable view) start to succeed, and the Tories begin to recover from their present dismal showing of 29 per cent. But leaving that possibility on one side, there is still the danger for Miliband that an image of him as a timid and irresolute figure who is unfit to be Prime Minister will become fixed in the public mind.
Offering your own troops no clear sense of direction is dangerous. Harold Wilson suggested in 1963, just after giving his own party a sense of direction by spouting what turned out to be a lot of guff about the white heat of the technological revolution, that Labour "is like a vehicle. If you drive at great speed, all the people in it are either so exhilarated or so sick that you have no problems. But when you stop, they all get out and argue about which way to go."
It is surprising that more people have not yet tumbled down the steps of the Labour bus and started arguing about which way to go. But Tony Blair, its most successful recent driver, has now started to do this in his piece in the New Statesman, in which he warns Miliband not to "tack left on tax and spend".
Many other passengers on the bus may still be feeling so tired after the long and alarming journey they made with Blair and then Gordon Brown at the wheel that they lack the energy to dispute whether now to turn left, or turn right, or carry on straight ahead, or else stop at the next service station for a cup of coffee and a bun, or perhaps do an internet search for a decent gastro pub somewhere not too far off the motorway. But such listlessness likewise does Labour no credit, suggesting as it does a state of intellectual exhaustion.
If Miliband is ever to demonstrate that he has the leadership qualities needed for 10 Downing Street, he ought at least to show that he is capable of leading his own curiously docile party.