Ed Miliband was elected in a position of weakness. If you are at your strongest at the moment you are elected then the way things were going before the hacking scandal exploded God knows how weak Ed would have been by 2015.
It’s important to understand how and why it happened to understand what has happened after. When people talk about the ‘Labour Party’ electing Ed Miliband they are wrong. The Labour Party, made up of its MPs and party members, voted for his brother, David. In fact, for the first time ever someone was elected as the leader of the Labour Party who the members didn’t vote for. The only section of the Electoral College that makes up the Labour movement who voted for him was the Trade Unions, who share a proud history with the party but are viewed upon negatively by the wider public.
It’s because of this Ed cajoled Alan Johnson into being his Shadow Chancellor, despite various issues over his appetite for the job and economic experience. It was essential that Ed bolster his position with the right of the party by promoting someone from their circle. It was also important to weaken the position of Ed Balls, who came out of the leadership contest with an enhanced reputation and who, along with his wife Yvette Cooper and supporter, John Healey, dominated the Shadow Cabinet elections.
Dare I say it, but the attempts and manoeuvres to please various parts of the party by Ed have reminded me of his mentor, Gordon Brown. Both of them spent time making speeches and promotions designed to please various wings of the party to bolster their own weakened position within the party. But the left sensed betrayal and the right sensed half-heartedness and both were unhappy. And wasn’t this the exact situation Ed found himself in, despite his own frustrations at Brown?
So for the first nine months of his leadership Ed struggled to cut through to the public. There is no point in denying it. The polls that rate the leaders of the parties showed him to be about as popular as Iain Duncan Smith at the same stage in his leadership. Ed deserves the success and plaudits that he has collected in the last week over the hacking scandal. He has used the freedom of opposition well to make the correct calls in calling for Rebekah Brooks to resign and for the inquiry and so on. He’s finally cut through to the public and in the process found an authentic voice unlike the Ed Milibot horror of a week or so before.
Just as Brown had his second chance after the financial crisis and his sadly brief decisiveness in recapitalising the banks, Ed now has his second chance too.
But he’s still the same person he was before, just like Gordon Brown was the same person with the same character who plotted against Blair for ten years even after he found his voice during the financial crisis. It ended badly for Brown, who couldn’t maintain his newly found confidence and couldn’t change his character after so many years scheming and surrounding himself with undesirables to do the dirty work for him.
It doesn’t have to be that way for Ed. He can use his renewed confidence to strike a bolder stance on a range of issues that Labour has struggled on since losing the election last year. The party is more united behind him now than at any time before, including at the moment of his own election as leader.
But the election has not been decided on the past two weeks alone. The focus groups are still showing that people are more concerned with jobs, the economy, crime and immigration than phone hacking, however much they were disgusted by some of the revelations and admiring of how Ed has led on the issues.
When it comes to choosing a government to lead and a leader to lead it, the public won’t vote on the basis of what Ed did in the last two weeks, but on the decisions he makes over the next four years and indeed on the decisions he’d already made now, on graduate taxes, opposition to benefit caps and so on.
The danger for Ed now is that he risks overplaying his hand on the hacking scandal and moves from being a leader of public opinion to being out of touch with it. In constantly demanding an apology from Cameron over Coulson he risks giving the impression of feigning anger for party political point-scoring. Meanwhile polling evidence is beginning to suggest that the public are tiring of the issue while issues such as jobs and the economy continue to have more of an impact on their lives.
This isn’t an ‘I told you so’ moment for his supporters to jeer at those who legitimately doubted his success as leader, as if Ed has finally emerged from a pupa as a fully formed prime ministerial butterfly. His leadership ratings have improved over the last week. But if his supporters are to finally acknowledge the leadership ratings they would do well to acknowledge how bad they have been for the last nine months. Now they stand at ‘only’ -21%, as opposed to -34% previously. However, despite the last two weeks Cameron’s net approval rating has barely budged and is still far ahead of Ed’s. Going from terrible to bad is an improvement, but hardly a cause for gloating.
Ed has earned the right to be heard from the public, who will listen to what he says with more interest and will view it through a media that now views him with more respect, but that is all he has earned from the last two weeks. If he doesn’t make the most of it we’ll be hearing the same grumblings from his party as we have for the past nine months emerge soon enough.