In Depth

2015 election countdown: too late to ditch Ed Miliband?

Alan Johnson’s memoirs and appearances on Question Time make him a popular candidate to take over

Should the Labour Party take the extraordinary step of replacing their leader, Ed Miliband, in time for the May 2015 general election?

The question arises because of his miserably low scores in polls where voters are asked to rate his personal attributes: for example, a YouGov poll last month found that 60 per cent of voters believed he was “not up to the job” of being prime minister.

“If only it were David Miliband, we’d win the election easily” is the refrain among Labour backbenchers, which is not unreasonable given that David was their first choice in the September 2010 leadership election, before the trade union vote handed it to Ed.

David, of course, has quit Westminster politics for life as an NGO honcho in New York. But there are alternatives.

“What the Labour Party needs is a leader of substance, someone who’s been around the block a bit and can connect with a range of supporters across the social spectrum,” argues Alf Crossman, senior lecturer in industrial relations at the University of Surrey, in an article for The Conversation.

For Crossman – and he’s not alone - that “someone” is former postman and trade union activist Alan Johnson, a working-class hero of the old school, who couldn’t be more different to Ed if he tried.

“Whenever he’s interviewed or appears on the Question Time panel,” argues Crossman, “Johnson isn’t afraid to stray from the rehearsed party line – so you get a sense of what he, Alan Johnson, really thinks.

“He is thoughtful, speaks his mind and talks common sense. His responses are not always as polished as some of the others, but that’s because they are his views and not the creation of some back-room spin doctor. He comes across as a man you can trust - now there’s a novelty.”

The realisation that the Labour Party harbours a man who is neither a geek nor an Oxford PPE and who might make a damn good party leader isn’t new. There was talk of Johnson looking like a leader when he was Home Secretary in Gordon Brown’s government and it came up again with the publication last year of This Boy, his well-received memoir recounting his upbringing in poverty-stricken (times have changed) Notting Hill in the 50s and 60s.

But there’s a catch: publicly at least, Alan Johnson has never expressed any desire to be party leader. He was not in the frame when Ed beat David in September 2010: apart from the Miliband brothers, the other candidates were Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott. Nor has he indicated that he has the guts and determination required to lead a still fractured Labour Party.

Which brings us to an extraordinary defence of Ed Miliband by Peter Oborne of the Daily Telegraph who rode in on his white charger last week when he heard that questions were being raised about the Labour leader’s “character”.

“This worthless slur should be dismissed with particular scorn,” wrote Oborne. “Anyone who has endured an incessant barrage of vitriol and deeply personal and deliberately wounding invective while retaining his good humour, as Mr Miliband has most certainly done, may be lacking in a number of departments. But character is not one of them.

“Every day Mr Miliband arrives in his office, takes off his coat, and takes the bullets. I salute him.”

While Oborne agreed with those critics who say he should have had more experience of the outside world before becoming a politician, Ed is definitely “not weird” as many people claim. “I have rarely encountered a more normal or straightforward politician,” said Oborne. “The truth is that Mr Miliband can be very principled and courageous indeed. He has been at his best when he has taken risks and stood up against vested interests and powerful men.”

Most important, argued Oborne, Ed Miliband has managed to keep a lid on the potentially explosive tensions between the Blairite modernisers and ‘old’ Labour. “I have never seen Mr Miliband given the credit he deserves for averting a Labour civil war,” said Oborne.

Alan Johnson may look and sound the part, and he may have won the Orwell Prize for his delightful memoir (“told with a dry, self-deprecating wit and not a trace of self-pity,” wrote Chris Mullin in an Observer review). He doubtless knows how to tackle a bacon sandwich without embarrassing himself.

But could he keep Labour’s warring factions from self-destruction? Would he show the same resilience in the face of “vested interests and powerful men”? And if he were to be persuaded to stand, would he be so good, so sensational a choice, as to merit the havoc necessary to make it happen?

I have asked around for guidance on how Ed might be supplanted.

First, it has to be said that when confronted with the idea of actually doing something about Ed rather than grumbling, no one displayed much appetite for the kill.

That said, the most popular solution was that Ed would agree to fall “ill”: frankly, given the courage of the man – as outlined by Oborne above – that looks like a non-starter.

Otherwise it would take a carefully plotted revolt at this September’s annual party conference when Labour MPs would have to put their heads above the parapet and sign a petition for a new leadership election. This would presumably be followed by a special party conference in the new year, with the winner given only weeks to prepare for the general election in May.

On second thoughts, maybe stick with Ed. Especially now that two separate opinion polls show Labour have regained a seven-point lead over the Conservatives, the ‘Juncker effect’ - which briefly had the parties neck-and-neck - having quickly evaporated.

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