Wednesday, January 18, 2012


Daily Post column 16th January 2012

During last week, it may have dawned on Ed Miliband that being Leader of the Opposition is probably the worst job in British politics.

At a time when the economy is struggling and the UK government is managing a massive reduction in public expenditure, his popularity should be at an all-time high.

Yet, not only have the Conservatives overtaken Labour in the polls but, following a series of gaffes reported in the press, even Nick Clegg is rated higher than Mr Miliband.

As cartoonists continue to draw him as Gromit, there are already whispers of plots to replace him only fifteen months after he narrowly won the Labour Party leadership.

And when you start to become a comic caricature, then it becomes difficult for the public to consider you otherwise. In fact, other leaders of the opposition have faced the same problem in recent times.

Michael Foot, one of the great political thinkers of his generation, was reduced to comparisons with a tramp for wearing a donkey jacket to a cenotaph ceremony.

Neil Kinnock saved his party from becoming an extreme left wing irrelevance but once he had been labelled the “Welsh windbag”, fallen into the sea at Blackpool, and let his exuberance get the better of him at a pre-election rally, most of the public simply couldn’t envisage him as Prime Ministerial material.

The same was true of William Hague, lampooned for wearing a baseball cap at a theme park, and Iain Duncan Smith for his unwitting self-parody as the ‘quiet man’, although both have subsequently rehabilitated themselves as key members of the Coalition Cabinet.

As Shakespeare wrote, “Some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them”.

And it is the latter category, that includes leaders of the opposition, that face the biggest obstacles.
Rivals who desperately want their job and have enough time to stab them in the back before the next election surround them.

There is the danger, in trying to show inclusivity, that they abandon people who helped them win in the first place, not only losing the trust of those who gave their support but creating enmity where none existed before.

Indeed, there is the temptation to inject so-called new blood by appointing the wrong people to senior positions of trust and, as Ed Miliband has found out with Lord Glasman, they end up being an embarrassment to both him and the party.

And in an election that was close, as with the Labour Party in 2010, many supporters will then think “What if?”  What if we had realised, right at the beginning that he was never up to the job of leader? What if we had supported the other main candidate, in this case, Mr Miliband’s brother?

And then the whispering campaigns begin, encouraged by rivals and fuelled by newspaper editors whom they have alienated through ill-thought responses aimed at shoring up their authority.

So what is Mr Miliband to do?

Certainly, he must become a more effective public communicator to connect with his MPs and his party. He must also build on the faith of those who supported him in the first place, remembering that, in politics, it is as important to keep your friends close as courting your rivals within the party. That is what David Cameron did so well in building an inner circle of advisors in opposition who are still with him today in Downing Street.

Finally, he must also look to develop policies that resonate with the wider public and not just the Guardian reading intelligentsia who will be the first to turn on him once his star begins to wane.

If he does not, then the four to one odds of him resigning as Labour leader during 2012 may seem very generous indeed.