In Depth

Ed Miliband: The disaster is he never got a life

Sadly, unless the men in white coats (or M&S suits) come for Miliband, it is too late to change leaders

Columnist Robert Chesshyre

Dissatisfaction among senior Labour Party figures with Ed Miliband as party leader swells by the day. Labour “grandees”, so named by The Times, are desperately unhappy. Already regretting the Miliband choice back in September 2010, they have now had time to weigh the damage done to their party’s chances by Miliband’s woeful conference performance, especially the speech in which he “forgot” to mention the deficit – akin to a penalty taker missing the goal with the keeper sitting in the stands.

But who else is there? Most of the leadership contenders are now damaged goods: Ed Balls? His wife, Yvette Cooper? Douglas Alexander? The other sharp-elbowed would-be leaders in no way set the pulses racing. To a man and a woman, they are products of a career system which precludes exposure to the real world: most of them know nothing except politics; who’s in, and who’s out. And, quite frankly, who cares?

Miliband is an unvarnished disaster as a would-be PM. A poll of opposition leaders who went down to heavy election defeats (Michael Foot in 1983 was comfortably in bottom place) gave Miliband a lower rating than Neil Kinnock had in either of the general elections he lost so woefully. The poll, which included Tory losers William Hague and Michael Howard, showed beyond argument that no party can win an election without a popular leader. This is a personality age – and Miliband has none.

This summer 60 per cent of voters told pollsters that Miliband was “not up to the job” of being prime minister. Now that it is autumn, the unhappiness with Miliband is total: leaks are coming faster than the falling rain. Much of the Westminster muttering is anonymous – “MPs who refuse to be named”, whispered in the Daily Telegraph’s ear – but some of the most trenchant criticism is coming from successful Labour leaders of yesteryear like John Prescott.

An oft derided figure, Prescott has roots in a real job – he was, famously, a steward aboard liners, hence cruel jibes from Tory MPs when he rose to speak in the Commons. ("Mine's a gin and tonic, Giovanni!" Nicholas Soames would call.) He does, however, stand for the values that have traditionally underpinned Labour but elude the current crop of wannabe leaders: and he was deputy leader in those far-off days when Labour did win elections. He wrote on Sunday that Miliband has set his sights no higher than leading a coalition: he described him as “timid” and the Manchester conference atmosphere as “flat”.

Gordon Brown, politically dead after his time in Number Ten, emerged as a comparative giant in the Scottish independence referendum. While an ineffectual Miliband was being mobbed in a street market, Brown was recalling Labour waverers to the ‘Better Together’ cause. Those only too glad to see the back of Brown in 2010 looked wistfully at their TV screens as he galvanised his Scottish audiences. 

Unless the men in white coats (or M&S suits) come for Miliband, it is too late for the Labour Party to change leaders before next May’s poll. The messy leadership election machinery wouldn’t allow it: and anyway the late John Smith’s desire for ‘One Man, One Vote’ (OMOV) has vanished in a system designed to give special interests the edge. (I know a man who had six votes of differing weight at the last leadership election, all of which he gave to Ed Miliband and all of which he now regrets).

There remains one senior figure in the party untainted by either failure or careerism to whom ‘Old’ (and even ‘New’) Labour folk look to with longing. This is Alan Johnson, briefly Home Secretary in the dying days of Brown’s government. 

He is working class, a postman for many years; a man who raised his family in a council house. “MPs” – yes, those who dare not speak their name – tell the Telegraph that they would love to swap Miliband for Johnson. Frank Field (on the record) told me he would like to be led by Johnson. “Postman Pat versus the Old Etonian,” he sighed.

Johnson, like most people, has had his personal woes, but he is self-evidently a decent man who represents the values of fairness and opportunity that underpin the Labour Party at its most high-minded moments. He has just published his second volume of memoirs, Please, Mr Postman, which (like his best-selling first volume) make many readers (at least this one) long for the return to Downing Street of someone who believes in principles, not polish; in equality, not exhibitionism.

There is, of course, another Johnson out there with the fiercest ambition in politics. If David Cameron stumbles (either in the election or in the renegotiation of our terms of EU membership), Boris will be at his jugular faster than a mongoose on a cobra. If Alan Johnson can be tempted back into the front line, what a prospect for the British voters: Johnson versus Johnson. Bring it on and then we’ll see where Britain stands.

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