This article is from the June 2012 issue of Total Politics

The life span of an opposition leader can be brutally short. Ed Miliband tells the story of being approached recently by a member of public who suggested he was a dead ringer for the Labour leader: if he ever lost his job he could be an impersonator.

He replied in deadpan fashion that, should he lose his job, there would not be much of a market for a Miliband impersonator. Modern politics is littered with the corpses of those who failed in opposition: Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard. He does not want to join the unfortunate list.

This is the Miliband humour, a self-deprecating style that plays well in small groups and was deployed at some 30 question-and-answer sessions around the country in the run-up to the local elections. Aides believe that this plays to his strengths more than set-piece speeches or walkabouts.

It may seem folksy. At a community centre in Perry Barr, Birmingham, just two days before the elections, he does the whole shtick in front of a seated circle of people who may or may not be Labour supporters.

It’s Miliband, facing off with Ed Balls, taking turns to answer a series of questions. Labour would create more jobs; it would have better lights in parks; better CCTV. He knows which answers press the right buttons. In the corner, a trio of suited advisers is watching on their iPhones and BlackBerrys the breaking news about the culture, media and sport committee’s Murdoch report. None of the questions, however, are about phone-hacking, Jeremy Hunt, the eurozone crisis, or any of Westminster’s favoured topics.

The questioners mainly have local concerns: the withdrawal of funding from community groups or the price of bread. Miliband takes the questions in batches of three. He looks like he’s listening, that he cares, that he might be able to do something about the problems. Sometimes he seems slightly awkward, his eyes startled, his voice – in the words of Rory Bremner – like “Tony Blair, with a cold, eating an apple”. And he uses curious turns of phrase, opening sentences with, “I say to you”. (After the local elections, he said: “My friends, I bring you news from Scotland.”) While good in small groups, he lacks charisma on television, as even his allies admit. Compared to David Cameron he is neither polished nor super-confident nor patrician.

That, say his aides, is not necessarily a problem. They believe that as the cuts go on, the prime minister will lose the benefit of the doubt with the public, who will turn on their over-privileged, out-of-touch leader. And there, picking up the pieces, will be Edward Miliband, who understands ordinary people – the squeezed middle – better. The local election results in early May seem to have born this out, at first glance – Labour swept towns and cities before it, including Plymouth, Southampton, Exeter, Birmingham, Great Yarmouth and Derby.

The Labour team is aware of the parallels with France, where the uncharismatic François Hollande seized power from the more charismatic but mercurial Nicolas Sarkozy, although Miliband does not want to share Hollande’s statist reputation.

A large part of this strategy depends, of course, on the continued plight of the coalition, and some Labour insiders fear that it’s a big risk to take. Miliband has had two high points since he became leader in the autumn of 2010, surprising almost everyone except his own team. (Marcus Roberts, his strategist, had drawn up spreadsheets predicting the win.)

The first moment was the phone-hacking scandal when it first broke upon a disgusted British public last summer. Miliband ignored the advice of some courtiers to play it safe and instead took on the Murdoch empire, a move which could easily have backfired. His poll ratings revived dramatically. Vague talk of opposition disappeared overnight.

The second revival was a gift from George Osborne. The spring Budget, with its cut in the 50p rate – a “tax cut for millionaires” – prompted week after week of headlines about pasties, caravans, church spires and charities even before the government prompted the jerry can petrol crisis. Miliband has sat back, enjoying an opinion poll fillip that has placed his party 10 points ahead of the Tories consistently in recent weeks. The party turned that lead into hundreds of fresh council seats in the May elections, but experts describe this as a “soft” lead. It could crumble easily.

The common strand is that Labour has prospered when the coalition has faltered. But is this enough to propel Miliband onto the steps of Downing Street in 2015? Senior party figures are still cautious. “I think he’s made a lot of progress in terms of defining the coalition in the last few weeks,” says one. “They’ve made some own goals, but he deserves some credit for that. We’ve earned the right to be heard. He still has a lot of work to do, though, a long way to go.”

One Miliband aide admits that an outright victory is a stretch in three years’ time, but believes that a minority Labour government or coalition would be fine. “That would still be a huge improvement on 2010, when we only got 29 per cent of the vote,” he observes.

There seems, however, to be no groundswell of support behind him. Even when the Labour chart starts ticking upwards, the party leader is lingering far below. This has been the reverse of Cameron, who, until only weeks ago, was more popular than his party. YouGov in early April put Labour ahead of the Tories by 10 points, yet 30 per cent thought Cameron would be the “best leader”, with Miliband lagging at just 19 per cent. Nick Clegg’s feeble five per cent rating came as scant relief. Unsurprisingly, Labour likes to focus on more positive Ipsos MORI polls.

Meanwhile, focus groups have not exactly warmed to Miliband as a credible prime minister-in-waiting, even if the memory of his ‘knifing’ his brother over the leadership is receding over time. In March, the Labour leader was savaged by listeners on Radio 5 Live, where his interview was fraught with technical problems. “He’s got his head in the sand about debt,” said one caller. And then there was Charles from Wakefield: “I can’t take you seriously… you’re a laughing stock.” Miliband was irritated by the appearance, believing it was unfair that the BBC had only allowed negative callers on the show.

Another shock was the Bradford West by-election defeat, where he had to cancel a planned victory trip to the Yorkshire seat after it was snatched by George Galloway. Miliband was angry that local activists had failed to predict the result.

Looking at the man himself, there’s something slightly other-worldly about Miliband. Perhaps it’s because of his total immersion in politics since his upbringing as the son of a Marxist thinker in North London. It’s hard to imagine him ever reading the Daily Mail rather than The Guardian.

One person who’s worked with him says he uses “technocratic politician speak”. They add: “I’d like to see him get angrier, to develop more of a human edge.”

Miliband is a politics obsessive and works long hours, from 7am to 11pm. “Most days he rarely sees his own family,” says one ally. That can result in tired aides working late alongside him when they would rather be slumped in front of the TV at home. At weekends, his family time is repeatedly interrupted by work calls.

If he has a hinterland, it’s not quite clear what it is, beyond a love of the Boston Red Sox baseball team. He claims to like the music of A-Ha, who last had hits three decades ago – Take on Me is his favourite song. He had a personal trainer, but is not sporty. In personality terms, he’s more like Osborne, another awkward politics addict, than the broad-brush Cameron.

This is in contrast to Balls, who has wide interests, including cooking, football and travel. He used to take holidays in the Scottish Highlands so Gordon Brown could not call his mobile – there was no reception. He often leaves work at 6pm.

The poor personal opinion polls do put pressure on Miliband, even though he won’t admit it. He insists repeatedly that he doesn’t care what the polls say and will not be deterred from his chosen course.

The Labour leader does not lack confidence. There’s something almost ‘zen’ about the way he operates, maintaining calm even in the most difficult circumstances. “When things go badly, he doesn’t get over-excited,” says one Labour figure. “Equally, if something goes well, like PMQs, and everyone’s crowding around, telling him it was great, he just shrugs it off.” When someone threw an egg at him in Southampton on election results day, he was utterly calm. Another ally says: “The waves come crashing over him and he doesn’t flinch. He has real resilience.” On the night he became leader, one petrified aide – popping Imodium, the anti-diarrhoea tablets – noticed just how “incredibly” relaxed he was.

That sense of purpose includes a certain ruthlessness, as well. Miliband hates being asked about when, if ever, his older brother will return to frontline politics. Yet when it came to running against David for the leadership, he did it. He dispatched Nick Brown as shadow chief whip hours afterwards because of his association with the Gordon Brown regime.

A former ally to have exited the Miliband orbit is Maurice Glasman, the outspoken ‘Blue Tory’ academic whom he placed in the House of Lords. Glasman’s first mistake was to write a column criticising his friend for having “no strategy”. The second was to offer to write a column for The Sun on Sunday, the Murdoch-owned successor to the News of the World. A few weeks later, Miliband and Glasman tried to “clear the air” behind closed doors, but it didn’t work. “Ed tore him off a strip,” says one colleague. Since then, Glasman is persona non grata among almost all of the Miliband team.

Others to have fallen out with the leader include Liam Byrne, the Blairite shadow pensions secretary, who subsequently declared his intention to run for Birmingham mayor. The two clashed over Byrne’s desire for a tougher approach to welfare. “Ed became sick of Liam always telling him what to do, to do it this way, that way,” says one source.

Allies see this as part of Miliband emerging from his chrysalis, gaining the confidence to make tough decisions rather than trying to keep everyone happy even when they disagree. Changing the rules so that he now has patronage over shadow cabinet appointments has made him feel more secure.

Aides to Gordon Brown used to deliver bad tidings to him in “shit sandwich” form – good news, bad news, good news. Not so Miliband. He urges aides to criticise him, to tell him how he can improve. If they point out problems – for example, the way his hands flap when he speaks – he tries to improve his technical performance.

Miliband remains a highly “conciliatory” and “inclusive” leader. His supporters are an eclectic bunch, including Charles Allen, former chief executive of ITV, Arnie Graf, an American community organiser, and Andrew Rosenfeld, a former property tycoon who lived in Switzerland for five years to avoid tax. At shadow cabinet meetings, the Labour leader’s management style has been described as “chairman-like”, given his propensity to let everyone waffle at length. In the early months of his leadership, he would fail to sum up meetings at the end, leaving colleagues with a sense of drift. And those meetings were often awkward early on. Ed Balls, frustrated in the post of shadow home secretary, would show his disdain for Alan Johnson – then shadow chancellor – by folding his arms and ignoring him. He would also act in a “contemptuous” way towards Miliband.

This was understandable. When they were Gordon Brown’s advisers, over a decade ago, Balls was the senior figure and Miliband the “lackey”, in the words of one frontbencher. They’ve worked together so long, they’re almost like a married couple, with all the ups and downs that entails. When Miliband took a sabbatical to teach at Harvard 10 years ago, it was in part because he felt “overshadowed” at the Treasury, which was then the “Ed Balls Show”.

Now it’s Balls who has had to swallow his pride. “I wouldn’t have made Balls shadow chancellor, would you?” says one senior Labour figure. “He will want to eclipse Miliband.”

The original plan in the autumn of 2010 was to place David in the shadow chancellorship. Ed had hoped to announce the appointment in his conference speech, along with a crackdown on union funding, both of which would demonstrate his centre-ground intent. The plan fell through when the devastated elder brother made clear his fury at losing the job he felt was his inheritance. There was then a scramble to find an alternative, with Douglas Alexander and Andy Burnham in the running before Johnson was decided on.

When Johnson resigned for personal reasons, only four months later, it took Miliband two days to choose his successor. Once again, overtures were made to David, but to no avail. At this point Ed tasked aides with presenting the ‘pro’ and ‘con’ reasons for hiring Balls. Lucy Powell, Miliband’s former deputy chief of staff, was among those arguing against – she said she had disliked Balls since her days with the pressure group Britain in Europe.

Eventually, Ed decided that the alternative – to leave Labour’s most economically-literate heavy-hitter out of the job he craved – made no sense.
Any overt tensions seem to have abated, now that Balls is in the post he long coveted, although he would rather be chancellor than shadow chancellor. (“I miss being in government every day,” he says privately.) Now in control of Labour’s economic policy, he’s more content, even if he’s not exactly deferential to Miliband. Even Tessa Jowell, who placed him fifth out of five in the leadership ballot, thinks he’s mellowed.

The importance of this relationship cannot be exaggerated. It would be lazy to reach for Blair-Brown comparisons, but everyone inside the Labour project knows that a toxic Balls-Miliband partnership would be disastrous. As such, the two teams are trying to make it work. In public, their body language is warm enough, although Miliband sometimes teases Balls about the length of his answers. In theory, they’ve replicated the old Osborne-Cameron partnership in opposition, with adjoining offices in Norman Shaw South. Yet Balls spends a fair amount of time in his MP office under Big Ben, several hundred metres away. He has a large number of allies in the Parliamentary Labour Party, while Miliband lacks a clique of MPs and relies more heavily on his unelected aides, such as Torsten Henricson-Bell, Greg Beales, Simon Alcock, Lord Stewart Wood and Anna Yearley.

And splits have emerged, as subtle as they may appear. Ed and Ed disagreed over whether to attack excessive bonuses. Balls left the criticism to Miliband and Chuka Umunna, the business spokesman. He even attacked excessive City regulation and criticised the “opportunistic” way in which Cameron removed Fred ‘the Shred’ Goodwin’s knighthood. Miliband genuinely believes the economy can be “rebalanced” away from the Square Mile. Former City minister (and ex-FT leader writer) Balls is less sure.

This reflects their different natures. “They really are chalk and cheese,” says one senior party figure. Miliband is an intellectual, who regularly gathers key allies to shoot the breeze for hours on end. Balls, despite his high intellect, is a more instinctive politician.

Separately, some Labour MPs still fear their party has yet to agree a cohesive single line on the economy. Much of the tussle involves how much to focus on attacking coalition cuts and how much to accept the need for austerity in 2015.

Balls appeared to accept the need for fiscal responsibility in a February speech to the Fabian Society, and in an interview in which he said Labour accepted “all the cuts” and a pay freeze – to the fury of the unions. (Strikingly, the line was not run past the shadow cabinet at their weekly meeting.)

After that, however, Balls returned to his default position of preferring to attack the “too deep, too fast” cuts, frustrating colleagues such as Jim Murphy, shadow defence secretary.

Balls gambled his reputation in a speech warning about the cuts at Bloomberg 18 months ago, saying they could plunge the economy into a double-dip recession. Last month, the figures bore this out: Balls appears to have been vindicated.

Meanwhile, he has taken succour from the growing European consensus away from cuts in favour of a massive growth plan – as cited by François Hollande and Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank. It makes Balls’s position even more secure as Labour’s economic strategist. The only flipside? The public rate his economic competence even lower than that of Osborne.

According to Andrew Hawkins of ComRes, Labour’s mixed message on deficit reduction is part of the problem: “The public accept, by and large, that the economy is in a mess and they accept the tough rhetoric, even if they don’t like all the medicine being dished out,” he says.

If the public is confused about Labour’s fiscal stance – fighting each cut, but refusing to reverse them – there’s an abiding lack of clarity about the party’s policy agenda. Strategists insist there’s no sense in showing too much leg this early in the Parliament. They question the point of producing a ‘shadow Budget’ that the coalition can then pick apart (as happened to Kinnock in 1992). Instead, the party is working through a gradual process that will include a national policy forum next month and an unveiling of several new policies at autumn conference. (Under the auspices of Byrne, now out of favour.)

Perhaps at this point Miliband’s vision will become clearer. Formerly nicknamed “Red Ed”, he won his support with the union barons. Even brother David privately nicknamed him “Brother Ed”. Environmental groups hailed him as the most green-friendly energy secretary ever. Ed Miliband’s American adviser Graf, who is disillusioned with Barack Obama, thinks Miliband is the socialist real deal.

As leader, however, he has taken a middle-ground route, emphasising rising living costs, the price of energy and train fares, a theme that melds his instincts with the self-interest agenda of New Labour. He has gone further than the coalition in attacking “vested interests” such as the banks, but in the belief that this is the new middle ground in a post-credit-crash world.

Once again, he’s been helped by Cameron’s failure to tackle executive pay, the bonus culture and rising fares. But it is evolution, not revolution. Some green groups and charities feel disappointed. Conversely, some Blairite MPs fear that the attacks on big business could backfire, and they worry that Labour’s relationship with business remains awkward. Miliband knows the party needs corporate support to remain credible, but he is said to have little rapport with businessmen. Asked if any of his friends worked in the City, he once joked: “Some of my best friends are bankers.”

The question remained unanswered.

At the same time, however, the ‘change’ agenda remains modest, with a motherhood-and-apple-pie feel. The pledge card for the local elections carried just five promises: one was that the over-75s should be put on preferable energy tariffs. The other was a “cap on fares”.

“Anyone who thought he was going to be Red Ed, who would genuinely change the way the country operates, is wrong,” says one Labour backbencher. “We’ll see whether or not that’s a good thing.” 

Jim Pickard is political correspondent for the Financial Times

Tags: Ed Miliband, Issue 48