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Iain Martin: Ticking Over

Ed Miliband has enjoyed a good year, but the going is about to get tougher, writes Iain Martin





WORDS: IAIN MARTIN




Pity the leader of the Opposition. While the Prime Minister has had a bruising year – with an omni-shambolic budget, House of Lords reform grinding the gears of coalition and the publication of the Leveson report – David Cameron does have one very important consolation: power. A nice flat in a Georgian building above the shop in central London and a country house in rural Buckinghamshire also help to dull the pain.

In contrast, Ed Miliband finds himself at the worst stage in the cycle of opposition. Halfway through a Parliament there is little on offer beyond the slog of preparing for the next PMQs, convening policy discussions and crafting speeches which will be hosted by media companies or think tanks keen for their backdrop to be used so that they are seen on the news channels. A visit from the Leader of the Opposition means free advertising. The media will turn up to these events, although not in huge numbers, and the occasions are pervaded by a sense that while this is all very interesting, time is being marked until the contender has to face the electorate in a General Election, when we’ll find out if he has got the indefinable “it”.

Sure, for the moment Miliband has a strong poll lead, but the Labour leader cannot know whether it will prove durable or turn out to be paper thin. It’s perfectly possible that, as on plenty of previous occasions, the main governing party will recover from a period of mid-term deep unpopularity and win the subsequent General Election.

Making matters more difficult, the consensus seems to be that Miliband is struggling to make a personal connection with sufficient numbers of voters, although it should be remembered that Margaret Thatcher had a similar problem in the years between 1975 and 1979.

Knowing all this, the Labour leader must keep himself visible enough to remind voters he is there, ready and waiting, with something coherent to say, while avoiding being so omnipresent that he comes across as a needy whiner. This is difficult to pull off, particularly with the news cycle now spinning so fast, fuelled by Twitter, the journalistic equivalent of speed. At several points, Miliband has ended up on the wrong side of the line, when it has seemed as though he will call for an inquiry (judge-led, naturally) into just about anything.

Still, it has been a good, if not spectacular, year for the Labour leader. His authority was much strengthened 18 months ago when he handled the hacking scandal with aplomb, and after an awkward start to this year he recovered and built on his advantage. His authority amongst his colleagues is beyond challenge and he remains grounded with a sense of humour about the inherent ridiculousness of having an important job that comes with almost no power.

The Labour leader told Grazia magazine this month: “One of the things Justine often says is, ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’ I think that’s totally right. Let’s think about what we could do when we are in power, but don’t start measuring for curtains. That’s not my style.”

Indeed, it is quite hard to imagine Miliband up a ladder actually measuring for curtains. And he shouldn’t call Pickfords just yet. An election – barring a constitutional crisis or coalition meltdown – is almost two and-a-half years away. He has what looks like another standard year of the grind of opposition ahead of him, during which the list of questions will grow longer about what he would do if he does get to replace Cameron in Number 10. For all his advances on several fronts there is still very little sense of what a Miliband premiership would be about.

In a nod to perceptions about David Cameron, he said recently that becoming Prime Minister shouldn’t be about just “ticking the box”. Instead it is about “changing the country”. Next year he will have to make a proper start on explaining how he plans to do that.

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