This article is from the August issue of Total Politics
Ed Miliband likes his epiphanies. Hardly a month goes by without Labour’s leader becoming impaled upon another lightning bolt of absolute truth.
First there was the epiphany over phone hacking. That was a biggie. Then there was the assault on private sector “predators” in his 2011 conference speech. And this month we’ve had bankers – a sort of Diamond epiphany.
Not everyone in Miliband’s inner circle is entirely comfortable at the thought of their charge running around epiphanising all over the place. “We need a strategy, not an epiphany,” one supporter said to me at the end of last year.
Well, Ed doesn’t agree. He is convinced he can have his epiphanies and eat them.
This ‘Epiphany Strategy’ has three broad elements. The first is that it involves Ed Miliband basically doing whatever Ed Miliband wants to: “I am nobody’s man, I am my own man. I am very clear about that,” he proclaimed the day after his leadership victory, a touch tautologically.
“I’m my own man. And I’m going to do things my own way,” he told Labour conference. Okay, he’s hardly going to get up and say, “I’m not my own man, I’m Len McCluskey’s”, but Miliband’s conviction that the key to his political success lies in staying true to his personal instincts is something that has defined his leadership from the very beginning.
And according to insiders, it sustained him during the dark days before the Budget and subsequent coalition omnishambles.
The second element is that the strategy is constructed around a strong moral core. “I don’t think it’s for politicians to lecture about morality,” Miliband famously said in the wake of the Jimmy Carr affair. Which, to be honest, was a bit cheeky, given that since the phone-hacking scandal he has done very little else.
“This is yet another example of some of the rich and powerful having their own moral standards, just as we saw during phone hacking. We cannot have a country where this happens,” he told the Unite conference in response to the Libor scandal.
Some Labour insiders – concerned it sounds a bit preachy, as well as providing hostages to fortune – have been encouraging him to adopt a slightly less high moral tone. They would like to hear him talking more about “fairness”. But they’ve forgotten the first rule of Epiphany Club: Ed is his own man.
The third key element is that it is high impact. Miliband’s stances on phone hacking, banking and predatory capitalism have all generated column inches, which is important in opposition.
It also ties in with a key piece of advice given to him by his new policy supremo, Jon Cruddas, which was to avoid nuanced policy positions and start painting in primary colours. They are certainly that. Ed’s epiphanies are psychedelic, not monochrome.
The up-side of this bold approach is there for all to see. Miliband is more relaxed, confident and focused. The narrative surrounding him has been shifted, and people are starting to take a second look at his leadership. Whether that is a result of the new strategy, or the collapse of the coalition’s, is debatable, but Miliband is convinced he is setting the agenda, and that’s what counts.
For now. The question is just how durable is this strategy? And, more to the point, will it survive contact with the electorate, come 2015?
Within Labour’s ranks there are skeptical voices. “Ed is convinced, absolutely convinced, it’s his destiny to be prime minister and change the country,” says one insider. And it wasn’t meant as a compliment.
Another is concerned about the extent to which the optimism engendered by Miliband’s change of political fortune is outpacing reality. “Okay, we may be pointing the finger to where the problems are. But are we, collectively as a party and a movement, ready to tackle them yet? There’s a danger all this is happening a bit too fast”, says a shadow cabinet source.
And there is a third problem with Miliband’s strategy: it’s not really a strategy. Miliband is identifying opportunities – he’s undoubtedly seizing a number of them – but they’re illustrative of fast reactions, not great foresight.
Labour is effectively flying by the seat of its leader’s epiphanies. And there are some tall mountains standing between his party and Downing Street.
Not that any of that really matters. Miliband has uncovered something that works for him, and he’s going with it. Whether others want to back his strategy, or non-strategy, is irrelevant. He’s backing it – more to the point, he’s backing himself. The leader of the Labour Party has the conviction to be a conviction politician.
This is what the opposition leader wants. It’s also what he thinks his party wants. And most importantly, he believes it’s what the British people want.
Epiphany politics. Try and focus-group that.
Dan Hodges is a Labour commentator