Ed Miliband’s speech: tricky message, poor timing

by Stephen Tall on July 26, 2014

Ed MilibandI’ve quite a lot of time for Ed Miliband. Politics needs intelligent, thoughtful folk with their hearts in the right place.

I respect, for example, that he held out last year against the superficially attractive urge to call for an in/out EU referendum advocated by more opportunistic Labour colleagues who relished the idea of stirring Tory discontent with Cameron. Miliband, rightly, decided to put national interest ahead of narrow party interest.

But there are evident troubles with his leadership, crystallised by his speech yesterday in which he acknowledged his own image problems: “I am not trying to win a photo-op contest in the next 10 months. And I wouldn’t win it if I tried.”

There is some sense in making virtue of necessity. But this acceptance has come only after four years of trying to beat David Cameron at the presentation game, and failing. If he had’t tried so hard in the first place yesterday’s concession would never have been necessary. Miliband is trying to argue for authenticity but he’s done so at the price of highlighting that for four years he’s not been authentic.

His problem now is that every time he mounts a photo opportunity to draw attention to Labour’s policy positions commentators will point out, not unjustly, that they thought he’d eschewed such fripperies. Yet again the focus will be on the leader’s style, not his substance — and this time Mliband will have only himself to blame for that.

The biggest problem with his speech yesterday, though, was the timing.

Friday saw the release of the latest GDP figures showing the UK economy return to its pre-crisis levels just as the IMF upgrades its growth forecast to show the UK growing faster than any other country in the world. There are all sorts of criticisms that can be made of the Coalition’s economic policies — that austerity delayed the return to growth, that the belated recovery is inherently unstable, that those benefiting from growth are primarily those who didn’t suffer recession.

What did the Labour leader focus on yesterday? That in the words of this BBC headline, “I can’t beat PM on image”. If there were ever a time to make this speech (I’m not sure there was) it wasn’t yesterday.

This isn’t the first time Labour’s timing has been, to put it kindly, odd. Miliband launched the major policy document, the IPPR-authored Condition of Britain, on 19th June: the same day as the crucial England v Uruguay World Cup match. Result: no-one (other than politicos) even noticed.

Such flaws might seem minor. In a sense they are. The voters won’t properly tune into the political debate until at least the start of 2015. We’re living through the phoniest of phony wars at the moment.

But the next election looks like it will be tight. Based on the current polls, Labour is in the stronger position, even on course for a small overall majority. Yet it will only take the Ukip vote to unwind a little and a few former Lib Dem voters to return and the Tories will start to overtake Labour. Unforced errors are a luxury none can afford.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.