Ed Miliband and the Battle for the Centre Ground

British Politics is a curious thing.  Elections are won in the UK by convincing people who describe themselves as ‘of-the-centre’ to vote for you.  You don’t get committed right or left wingers as swing-voters.   The hardcore left will vote Labour.  The committed right will vote Tory.  At the extreme end of either party you may get some lefties who lose faith and run off to nutty Marxist outfits or righties sulking off to UKIP but the numbers lost at these fringes are nothing compared to the numbers to be won in the middle.

The problem both parties face is that their grassroot activists, by definition and nature, do not generally tend to sit in the centre.   They naturally wish to drag their party toward the relevant pole.  The challenge for an aspiring leader of either of the main British Parties (yup, I only count the two) is to –

  • a) Convince your party that you have the left/right credentials to protect and maintain the party’s core political compass
  • b) Convince the public that they needn’t fear the ‘common wisdom’ version of the downsides of a lurch to the left or right, i.e. fear crippling ‘Tax and Spend’ misery associated with a big left swing, or fear the brutality of an un-regulated free market leading to orphans-cleaning-chimneys-for-tuppence with an unchecked lurch to the right.

Blair was the master of this and that is why he won three elections despite Iraq.  Cameron got it.  Brown didn’t.  And that’s why we now have a blue PM. It’s a heck of a juggling act.  As I say in my philosophy page – although the battle for the centre ground usually gets characterised as one of competence over political difference there is real substance between how centre-right and a centre-left perspectives manifest themselves in actual policies.  Our Current coalition is proving that a Centre-Right government can still be very radical in approach – thank goodness they just about won over the centre this time around.

Back to Ed Miliband.  He’s won the Labour leadership.  Congratulations.  He’s cracked part (a) of the equation and convinced the party (I’ll put aside for now the dodgy way they do leadership elections).  The challenge for him now is cracking part (b) and carrying the public.

My guarded instinct at the moment is that he will not be able to.  As an active Conservative obviously I find that a good thing.  I watched his speech on the news last night and nothing about his body-language and delivery gave me any sense that he has the gravitas or charisma to project himself as a credible leader to those swing-voters.  He looked like a rabbit in headlights.  His awkward gawky/geeky style screams policy wonk rather than leader.

That said, the reason I’m guarded is that if Labour are patient then there is plenty of time for him to grow into the role.   Cameron definitely enjoyed the extra few years to shift the lightweight tag after Brown bottled it in 2008.  Ed M. has similar time.  He also has the big benefit of being in opposition during a very rough economic period.  One thing he has over his brother is that he is not personally as tainted with the causes of these tough times – nobody in the public will have clocked him personally as a Labour ‘Top-Tabler’ during the last Government – and perception is more important than reality.  He can and will feign distance and a ‘new start’.

It will be an interesting few months as he tries to define himself to the electorate.  This is all about part B) in the equation.   For all the reasons above I suspect the Ed Miliband that emerges in this phase will be very different to the one that has just defined himself to the party.  He’s started with his interview in the Sunday Telegraph this morning.  Will the Union backers who gifted him the leadership allow him to play this game?  I doubt it.  But that’s the juggling act he now has to try and master- pander to the party and risk loosing the public, or pander to the public and risk loosing the party.  Who’d be a leader!

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