2016 Politician of the Year (undead)

In a new category in Lion & Unicorn’s annual political awards, we honour a man who’s setting the agenda from beyond the political grave.

As I was going up the stair
I met a man who wasn’t there
William Hughes Mearns, The Psycho-ed (1899)

During the run-up to the 1983 general election, the Daily Mail invited all three party leaders (Roy Jenkins spoke for both wings of the Liberal-SDP Alliance) to contribute a piece setting out their respective stalls. Labour’s Michael Foot submitted an article based on a Mail front page from the previous election listing ‘Labour’s Dirty Dozen’: twelve alleged lies that had been spread by the outgoing government concerning the likely actions of a Tory administration.

The biggest of the big lies was that Margaret Thatcher’s ministers would engineer a sharp rise in VAT. They did.

Foot’s piece simply listed the ‘dirty dozen’ and wrote next to most or all of them: ‘The government has done this.’

Prudently, the Mail chose to run instead an extract from Labour’s manifesto, a rallying cry on unemployment, and stuck Foot’s by-line on it.

Today, a latter-day Foot might go through the 2015 manifesto and similarly declare, ‘The Government has done this’ next to item after item. But this is not the Conservative Party manifesto but that of the Labour Party and its defeated leader Ed Miliband.

No fewer than ten key policies – and we mean key policies, not pledges on motorway extensions or the protection of rare bats or similar – have been copied out of Britain Can Be Better (yes, it’s Platitudes “R” Us, but it’s no worse than the Tories’ A Brighter, More Secure Future) and adopted by both the Cameron and May governments.

Here they are:

  • the living wage: proposed by Miliband, introduced by George Osborne after the election;
  • the Apprenticeship Levy: again introduced by Osborne, this was actually a tougher version of a scheme proposed by Miliband;
  • limits on European Union migrant benefits: proposed by Miliband, one of four planks in David Cameron’s EU membership renegotiation;
  • action on violence against women: a Miliband priority, since acted on by Theresa May as both home secretary and prime minister;
  • an energy price freeze: proposed by Miliband, ridiculed by the Tories then adopted by Cameron before the election, now being enacted, not least by British Gas;
  • improving Britain’s productivity: a central Miliband policy area, this was the main focus of Philip Hammond’s Autumn Statement;
  • a crackdown on fat-cat boardroom pay: proposed by Miliband, now being enacted by Mrs May;
  • an employee voice in the boardroom when top pay is discussed: proposed by Miliband, now echoed by Mrs May as part of a wider initiative – employee representatives should have a say in matters beyond executive pay, although it is unclear how this will work;
  • a new industrial strategy: proposed by Miliband, derided at the time as outdated 1970s thinking, now a key plank of ‘May-ism’;
  • a crash programme of house-building: proposed by Miliband, adopted by May.

On top of all that, of course, it was Ed Miliband who coined the phrase ‘the squeezed middle’, to denote those who had suffered five years of falling real pay between 2008 and 2013, an unprecedented post-war squeeze. More recently, Mrs May has set her cap at a very similar group, the ‘just about managing’.

So welcome to Miliband’s Britain – just without Miliband.

Given the triumph of Milibandism, it is odd, to say the least, that there have been so few post-mortem investigations into its progenitor’s failure at the May 2015 election. Nearly a quarter-century after the event, the defeat of his predecessor Neil Kinnock in 1992 still attracts theories and suppositions: was it the Sheffield rally, John Major’s soapbox, Chris Patten’s ‘double whammy’ poster, or ingrained Cambrianophobia with regard to Kinnock himself?

Since the 2015 defeat, beyond crowing that ‘the polls got it wrong’, few have seemed very interested in how a party leader able to produce (or at least to preside over the production of) so many popular ideas, ideas stolen by the other side, could not only have lost an election (no shame there) but be airbrushed out of history, other than as a sort of imperfect Mark 1 model of the real walking disaster-zone, Jeremy Corbyn.

Here is someone who ‘got it’, before the Tories did, that people’s faith in the post-1980s economic settlement had been profoundly shaken by the financial crisis and that they were no longer prepared to believe that ‘competition’ and market forces would see them all right. (Imagine what Miliband would have made out of the current Southern railway debacle – the word ‘hay’ comes to mind.)

As with the 1945-79 period, the Conservative Party has had to row in behind Labour ideas. The difference is that this time round there has been no Labour government to implement them.

Why not?

No one really knows (secret ballot and all that) but here are two suggestions.

Forget bacon sandwiches, ill-advised photo ops in the nursemaid’s kitchen chez Miliband, and ‘the Ed-stone’ (despite its not being a great idea, to say the least).

First, Miliband was badly holed by the SNP effect. The chattering classes in England rather like Nicola Sturgeon. No one else south of the Border does. Her laying down the law as to the terms on which she would support a Labour government (‘you bet Trident is a red line’) had a lot of voters scuttling back to the Tories.

Why did Cornwall, all of whose seats went ‘yellow’ in 2005, see a clean sweep for the Tories ten years later? As a lifelong Liberal of our acquaintance explained, ‘English nationalism trumped Cornish exceptionalism.’

Two, Miliband’s message kept slipping out of focus. Ed has probably heard the (sound) advice for anyone speaking to a breakfast meeting: at that time of day, you can get one point over only, if you’re lucky. Keep it simple, stupid.

But he may not have heard the supplementary advice that it is not much different at any other time of day. Three, maybe four, ‘lines’ are as many as the public can take. In Miliband’s case, these probably ought to have been: the system’s bust; the people in charge still believe in the system, so will never fix it; we’ll take on the profiteers and the cartels and get a better deal for you; we’re on your side, they aren’t, whatever they say.

Instead we had, inter an awful lot of alia, ‘pre-distribution’, ‘predators versus producers’, ‘the promise of Britain’ (not a bad headline, but we never got the story) and ‘we’re Britain – we’re better than this’ (sorry?).

But bad advice, poor strategy and muddled messages can’t take away Miliband’s achievement in setting a domestic agenda that the current government is now following. His achievement is down to one simple fact – unlike David Cameron, he realised that post-2008 everything had changed.

Theresa May got the memo on the night of 23/24 June, which is what has transformed her into such a staunch Milibandian.

To sum up, our Politician of the Year (undead) 2016: the Right Honourable Edward Samuel Miliband.

Other winners in 2016:

One thought on “2016 Politician of the Year (undead)

  1. ‘Here is someone who ‘got it’, before the Tories did, that people’s faith in the post-1980s economic settlement had been profoundly shaken by the financial crisis …’

    It is one thing to understand that there is a problem and quite another to offer a feasible solution. This is what Miliband never came close to doing. (Nor admittedly have the Tories under either Cameron or May). Miliband didn’t address the causes of our economic problems – a dependence on perpetual asset price growth and rising debt, the loss of manufacturing eminence, the deteriorating trade position and an education system not fit for purpose. All Miliband offered were treatments for the symptoms.

    Miliband faced another problem – the fact that he and Balls, the two most prominent politicians in the Labour Party, had their fingerprints all over the economic policies that led to the financial crisis.

    A merry Xmas and prosperous 2017 for all.


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