"He mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, a bit like an action hero ... He kept asking if I was ok, if I was hurt," she said. “He was there for a good few minutes. What added to all the confusion was that he was actually attractive and not geeky at all. Even the way he appeared was suave. He was dressed casually but he had style." Who could Ella Phillips, the victim of a cycling accident in Camden, be talking about? Believe it or not, the good samaritan, the "action hero" of the piece was none other than leader of the Labour Party, Ed Miliband. Good stuff.
Unfortunately, that's about the only good press the Dear Leader attracted all week. After last Thursday's county elections, the miserablist tendency have been decrying the party's performance. I happen to be of the school that 'winning' the election in contests that, eight times out of 10, were in Tory-held constituencies AND against the backdrop of the media's hyping up of UKIP isn't bad at all. It hasn't stopped the Blairite ultras from having a whinge - though I will note they proved somewhat reticent to comment on the whopping 0.2% contact rate their Prince Across the Water bequeathed his successor.
But this is about Ed, not David. Personalities are important in politics, so the profile of a party leader has to be just right. And on this score, as the internets, Tories and sore David fans keep telling me, Ed is somewhat lacking. He doesn't appear to be one of us because he's led a rarefied life. From Oxbridge he went into bag-carrying, spaddery, and parliament - in many ways the archetypal career path for the Westminster insider. He talks funny too. His stilted speeches comprise of short statements and assertions, boiled down into a kind of newspeak in which ambiguity - but passion and colour also - have got bleached out. He insists on repeating insincere-sounding political catchphrases, like "it's hurting, but it's not working", "cutting too far, too fast" and dropping 'One Nation' into every other utterance. And speaking as an out-of-sorts oaf myself, he occasionally comes across as physically awkward. As my wife might say, there is something of the Creature Comforts about him.
Taken together it means Ed lacks that undefinable something that constitutes the 'Prime Ministerial'. Or, so I'm told. But this understates and overlooks Ed's strengths. He certainly hasn't been right on everything, but he has taken significant political risks. From not stepping aside for his brother and challenging Murdoch, to sticking up for people on social security he is not as insipid - and is much more ruthless - than his opponents suggest. And take him from behind a lectern and put him in a Q&A, or better, a street, the man from Planet Wonk becomes an engaging and sympathetic human being. Unlike Nigel Farage's "common sense" jolly of photo opps and and pub lounge rallies, and Dave 'n' Nick's complete invisibility, Ed's street election campaign played to his strengths. His events were not stage-managed, he took all questions and tackled the hecklers. Some might snort, but it was John Major's willingness to do the same that helped the Tories to victory in 1992. In an age when politicians appear more remote than ever, being seen out and about properly engaging with people can go some way to eroding accumulated anti-political prejudices.
Personalities are important and assume overweening preeminence when there is little or no policy difference between the main parties. But there are significant differences between Labour and the Conservatives. For example, compared to wafer thin announcements in the Coalition's Queen's Speech, Labour offered this alternative. And counterposed to the Hayekian hellhole the Tories will offer in 2015, the policies so far outlined by Labour are very different:
- Repeal the Health and Social Care Act (otherwise known as the NHS privatisation Act)It's just a shame this had to be mined by Michael Meacher rather than sung from the rooftops. They're not storming the Winter Palace stuff by any means, but are a definite break with the Tory way of doing things, if not the cadaverous neoliberalism Dave and Gidders cling to.
- Build 125,000+ homes
- Regulate private rents
- Promote a Living Wage for public sector workers and shame the private sector into following that lead
- Offer a minimum 33-40 per cent cut in tuition fees
- Limit rail fare increases to one per cent
- Reimpose the 50p rate of income tax for the super-rich
- Impose a mansion tax on the rich
- Repeat the bankers’ bonus tax
- Reverse the bedroom tax
- Scrap Workfare and replace it with a ‘compulsory’ Jobs Guarantee
- Offer a VAT cut or a ‘temporary’ VAT holiday
- Implement the High Pay Commission report in its entirety
- Scrap Ofgem and bring in proper energy price regulation
- Break up the banks and set up a National Investment Bank
- Support mining communities and clean coal technology.
Therefore, policy matters. What parties and politicians will do, matters. Whether Ed trips over an interview in The World At One doesn't. What Labour need to do between now and 2015 is to continue offering an alternative, but be bolder in doing so. Ed needs to play to his strengths and avoid baseball-cap-and-log-flume "populism". And crucially, he must pay no heed to the siren voices of the Blairite outriders. Their grey managerialism will only dash Labour on the rocks of more cynicism, more alienation, and more anti-politics.