Will Ed Miliband be an Obama or an Hollande?

The Labour party leader faces a choice he’s still not made: to keep ambitions modest, or to offer a genuinely radical vision

Ah, the temptations of political opportunism. For Ed Miliband the temptation comes daily, courtesy of a government that can’t help but present opportunities for opportunist attack. True, David Cameron will get good headlines this weekend, thanks to his budget-cutting success in Brussels. But even Cameron’s successes usually contain just enough failure to allow for a Labour swipe. The opposition can be glad the overall EU budget is coming down, but note that Britain’s contribution will be going up: just as the equal marriage vote in the Commons allowed Miliband simultaneously to compliment Cameron for standing up for equality and tease him for failing to win over half his fellow Tory MPs.

Labour could keep taking shots like this from now till 2015. One moment mocking Michael Gove’s GCSE U-turn, the next savouring the sight of yellow-on-blue violence in Eastleigh, as the coalition partners take lumps out of each other in the battle to replace Chris Huhne. All the while, watching the polls tick over nicely, with Labour’s lead in, or close to, double figures. Miliband could comfort himself that this steady current could carry him to Downing Street. He doesn’t need to be Barack Obama in 2008, surfing a wave of charisma and public fervour. He could be François Hollande in 2012, the unexciting alternative who ends up in power simply because the electorate reject the incumbent.

So why knock yourself out trying to craft a grand, ambitious vision? When Cameron was in opposition, he too was surrounded by chatterers who demanded a big idea. He placated them with the “big society” – and look how well that worked. It spawned a thousand newspaper columns but famously flopped on the doorstep. It was, in the jargon, “non-retail”.

Still, don’t expect Miliband to give in to temptation, sending out surrogates to taunt the government over horseburgers and the like while he keeps his head down. For one thing, he knows it’s in the nature of political froth to evaporate, leaving no trace come election day. His team believe voters want to know what their would-be leaders stand for, that they expect the opposition to provide more than a running commentary on events. There was some disquiet in Labour’s ruling circle over the party’s initial response to Gove’s “Ebacctrack”, worrying that simply slamming the education secretary for a “humiliating climbdown” was insufficient: better to argue that his U-turn arose from a narrow, outdated view of learning. “We’ve got to do explanation, not just description,” as one senior figure puts it. Above all, they say, mere reactive assault doesn’t suit the leader’s personality. He’s an intellectual, interested in ideas. He won’t want to face the voters without a unifying, cohering Labour vision. But what will it be? Already a battle is under way to define it, one that will inevitably shape the conduct of the next Labour government.

The current offering is “one-nation Labour”, the slogan presented with panache at last autumn’s conference. Its stated goal is “a country we rebuild together in which everyone plays their part”. That translates into a call for unity – in contrast, says Labour, with the Tory division of Britons into strivers and skivers – and for both opportunities and responsibilities to be spread from top to bottom. It means Starbucks can make big profits, but it also has a duty to pay its taxes. And that an 18-year-old should have both the chance to find a job and the responsibility to take it.

Miliband himself refers to one nation as the “animating idea” that should run through everything Labour does, determining both ends and means. Those less enamoured suggest the slogan is baggy, capable of meaning everything and therefore nothing. But that breadth currently serves a useful purpose, allowing it to encompass a whole range of ideas bubbling below the surface – all of which can be handily described as one nation but about which there is, in fact, no Labour consensus.

On the economy, for example, there is still no settled view about whether the next Labour government’s prime task is to deliver a shot of Keynesian adrenaline to stimulate the economy back to growth, or to embark on the more radical mission of remaking capitalism itself. The former position is associated, not always fairly, with the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls. The latter notion seems closer to the thinking of Miliband himself, who regularly faults the last Labour government – in which Balls was a key economic player – for demanding too little responsibility from those at the top, just so long as they kept the tax receipts rolling into the Treasury coffers.

But there are similar differences on the other big questions of the age. On welfare, Labour’s day-to-day approach is to challenge the coalition over this or that spending cut, inevitably leaving the impression that Labour in power would simply reverse the cuts and spend as before. Another view was visible, however, in the speech delivered this week by Jon Cruddas, head of Labour’s policy review. “Simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good,” he said.

He and the Blue Labour grouping around him talk of an entirely new way of doing welfare, in which the business of citizens caring for one another would no longer be “outsourced” to the state, but be done directly, whether in families or through associations – the local, mutual and co-operative societies that used to be part of Labour history but which withered long ago. The talk is of a “relational welfare” system, rather than what Blue types call “the contractual, transactional” apparatus in place since 1945 and treated as sacred by parts of the Labour tribe ever since.

The NHS is the clearest example. Some would channel all their energies into attritional trench warfare against the government over cuts and closures, arguing that the last thing NHS staff or patients want is yet another reorganisation of the health service. Others, emboldened by this week’s report into shocking conditions at Mid Staffordshire, argue that the H in NHS does not stand for holy, and reforms there are long overdue – even if that means taking on trade unions likely to oppose the Blue Labour vision of workers sitting on boards, sharing responsibility with managers.

These are different views, all of which can take shelter under the roomy banner of one nation. For now the debate between them poses no great problem: if anything, it’s healthy. But the next election is only two years away, closer than you think. Labour has some big decisions to take, whether to keep its ambitions modest – or offer a genuinely radical vision. I asked one Labour figure in which camp Miliband belonged. He paused, before singing the old 1970s hit: Stuck in the Middle with You. Eventually, the leader will have to make his choice.

Twitter: @j_freedland


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