Before we descend into the full viciousness of an election campaign, I thought I’d try to say something nice about Ed Miliband. We at ConHome often write unkind things about the Labour leader: our LeftWatch blog is basically a running commentary on his inadequacies. But even the most inadequate of politicians has lessons to impart to others. Even Gordon Brown. This holds true for Miliband, and not just in the negative, how-not-to-eat-a-bacon-sandwich sense. He has his good points too.
Besides, Tim Montgomerie yesterday wrote in praise of Nick Clegg (£) – and I figured that I could go one better.
Let’s begin with a strange quirk of British politics: party leaders are often unalike in ways that go beyond their beliefs. There’s something about the Palace of Westminster that inverts symmetry. Where David Cameron is comfortable in his own skin, Miliband looks like the victim of some permanent, invisible torture. Where Cameron is sharp and decisive, Miliband is rounded and contemplative. Where Cameron is outgoing, Miliband is bookish. And so on. It just so happens that the Conservative party leader has more of the qualities expected of a Prime Minister – but Miliband’s qualities aren’t all bad.
And yet Miliband has at least one prime ministerial quality that Cameron lacks: consistency. There has been one major theme, with a few related motifs, throughout his leadership. It’s what used to be called “squeezed middle,” but it now more often called the “cost of living crisis”. Yet what is the Prime Minister’s theme? He began this Parliament with big words about the Big Society, but these have since dropped from his political lexicon. He’s ending it with a dreary checklist designed to sway a few hundred votes in each marginal seat: immigration, Europe, pensions…
I have made this point before with Cameron’s party conference speeches. In 2009, he warned Labour: “don’t you dare lecture us about poverty.” And after that? The subject barely ever came up again, whether in his speeches or in his other appearances, and certainly not with the same righteous anger. And the same goes for Cameron’s other buzzwords that buzzed off: social responsibility, the NHS, greenery, etc. No wonder Labour lecture the Tory leadership about these issues and more. The Tory leadership allows them the airspace.
Whereas Miliband’s conference speeches as party leader have been more consistent. The first is the most singular, but even that argued that “we must protect those on middle and low incomes.” And since then, not only has every speech mentioned the cost of living, but they have done so in increasing amounts. Even variations on this theme, such as the “predators versus producers” of 2011, or the “One Nation Labour” of 2012, were given lives outside of the conference hall.
You might be thinking: this is consistency to the point of madness. With prices growing at their slowest rate for 14 years, and being outpaced by wages, Miliband’s warnings of a “cost of living crisis” are losing their force as the election approaches. Shouldn’t he bang on about something else? But this misses the difference between official statistics and everyday experience. People have been feeling the pain in their pocketbooks for years now, perhaps even since before the recession. A few months of improved numbers, and of cheaper petrol, will do much to help. But that doesn’t mean that we’re living on Easy St.
Miliband was right to talk about the cost of living then; he is right to talk about it now. There were commentators who scoffed at his phrase “the squeezed middle”. Isn’t it clumsy? Isn’t it meaningless? And then they started using it themselves. What it did was help shift attention on to the local, rather than the supranational, effects of the Crash. Compared to George Osborne, who at the time spoke almost exclusively in terms of “bond markets” and “gilt yields”, Ed was speaking human.
As it happens, this specific lesson is one that the Conservative leadership has internalised already. Budget Day is now as much about personal budgets, and the whole tableau of “struggling families” and “hardworking businesses”, as it is about the national budget. Osborne has become White Van George. But the awkward question for the Tories is whether anyone will believe them. The impression of conviction comes from consistency. And when it comes to living standards, it’s Miliband who has been more consistent.
This is why it’s wrong to say that we don’t know anything about the Labour leader: in fact, we probably know more about him than about Cameron. His politics and – yes – his convictions are clear. He wants to redistribute; he wants the state to be an arbitrator in the markets; he wants to sign a hundred-thousand climate change agreements. What’s lacking, as we frequently found in our Pinning Down Miliband series, are the actual policies for achieving these ends. Not enough has emerged from Labour’s convoluted policy review. It’s mostly TBC.
Yet even that isn’t necessarily bad. Why does an Opposition need to reveal all of its policies so far in advance of an election, other than to feed to endless hunger of the 24-hour news channels? Isn’t careful deliberation something that our politics could do with? The answers are sometimes enough to make me feel sorry for Ed Miliband, a swot in a culture that celebrates showmen.
But then I remember the policies that Labour have announced, such as the dearly departed notion of freezing energy prices, and I think – nah. Resume normal service. There’s an election coming. Miliband can’t end up in No.10.