Ed Miliband has undeniably gained a lot of support this year, and his confidence is growing. Not that one could be elected leader of a political party without a certain amount of fortitude, of course – but to many, Ed has long been a bland non-entity. I don’t mean this as a harsh personal criticism, but merely as an (admittedly subjective) analysis of how the public sees him. As faceless as many politicians are, Ed takes the cake – outside of those who take an active interest in Westminster, not much seems to be known about him by the general public. He has a brother, a wife, and a nose – beyond that the public seem to know little. Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Pickles, Johnson – we already know the narratives accompanying them. From a left-wing point of view, it’s deceptively simple. Cameron, Osborne and Johnson are posh bullies, holding the poor of the nation by the ankles and guffawing as they shake coppers from the pockets of the poor. Clegg is a quisling turncoat. And Pickles is fat. Whether or not these narratives hold any truth, we know them, stick to them, and understand our politicians by them.
This is perhaps the biggest challenge that Ed Miliband has to overcome, and I get the feeling that he knows it – although I doubt we’ll ever hear him commit political suicide by admitting that nobody knows who the hell he is. Certainly, his profile has been raised ever since he came to lead the Labour party, and he certainly gained a lot of respect in the eyes of many during the recent phone hacking scandal – where he appeared able to respond to a changing wind far quicker than his counterparts heading the coalition. In my previous piece, discussing Nick Clegg’s speech to his party, I mentioned my dislike for adversarial politics. However, Ed Miliband really doesn’t seem to have much choice – in order to return his party to government, he must actively set himself apart. New Labour may have brought initial electoral success with Blair, but those gains have long been lost – stripped from the party in a desert wind. More than anything, Ed Miliband must be seen by the public as a credible alternative – not just to Cameron and Clegg, but to Blair and Brown too. Miliband, of course, knows this, as does the party as a whole – of so much import is the need to be seen as different, that it appears to be the cornerstone of his new public persona. He found himself applauded by many in the conference hall when he said ‘You know, I’m not Tony Blair’, although he was careful not to raise a smile. Continuing, he tried to set himself apart from his predecessors without outright distancing himself from them:
I’m not Gordon Brown either. Great men, who in their different ways, achieved great things. I’m my own man. And I’m going to do things my own way.
Labour do desperately need to build a credible image once more – but whether this can be much more than an image change remains to be seen. Ed Miliband is just one man – he is not an entire party. To the best of my knowledge, the party has not disbanded and reformed with completely new membership since the last election. The party has a new face, but the body is much the same. Undoubtedly, the party recognises that it must be seen to change – as Miliband acknowledged, recognising that ‘asking to carry on where we left off in government won’t win us back your trust.’ Whether the public changes their opinion of Labour between now and the next election is one thing – a lot depends upon the performance of the Coalition, and whether Cameron and Osborne can enter the next election with Britain in a happier state than when they first took office, or indeed now. Whether Labour can actually change is quite another matter.
If Labour do indeed win the next election, then a change within the party will be extremely important to the country. As Miliband recognises, there are some problems at the very core of British politics – ‘with such great people, how have we ended up with the problems we face? It’s because of the way we have chosen to run our country. Not just for a year or so but for decades.’ Miliband is certainly right in general about this (although to what extent either the previously ‘unelectable’ Labour party, or the general public, with naught but one vote each against those with both votes and money, can be said to have ‘chosen’ to run the country in a certain way for decades is highly debatable), but one can only hope that talk of change here is more than just the usual vote-baiting rhetoric. If Labour wins the next election, then (despite what Miliband says) it will be, to a certain extent, the result of a failure on the part of Cameron and Osborne. If, then, the Labour party wins and yet proves to be more of the same, Britain will suffer, as may Westminster. While it may be foolish to predict a Western Spring yet, we should at the same time not underestimate just how (to paraphrase Simon Foster MP) ‘unforeseeable’ events can be.