Saturday, 18 April 2015

Ed Miliband: coming good at the end. Now let's get the goal right

The last stage of a campaign is the most important, and with the British General Election three weeks away on 7 May, we’re into that last stage now. So it’s good to see that Ed Miliband is growing in stature in the final straight. “You want to exploit people’s fears rather than address them,” he told Nigel Farage of UKIP during the televised debate on Thursday, and it was heartwarming to hear him speak out so forcefully, effectively and succinctly.

The BBC Election Debate
Gone is the Miliband who seemed frankly accident prone – the worst accident coming when he simply forgot to mention the hardly insignificant matter of the economy in his speech to the final Labour conference before the election. Today, he speaks with real authority, with confidence, even with humour – he has a winsome smile and he’s making use of it these days.

This is causing consternation in the ranks of his Tory opponents. They were counting on Miliband imploding – metaphorically forgetting the economy again – and he’s stubbornly refusing to do so. They’ve tried flinging personal abuse at him and, as I pointed out before, he’s deflected their insults calmly and to powerful effect. Now, after years castigating Labour for unfunded campaign promises, they’re trying to throw money at the electorate – £8 billion more a year for the NHS being the latest wheeze – while still maintaining their commitment to savage spending cuts.

Miliband’s coming good at the end, and congratulations to him.

Sadly, however, while he’s holding off any Tory challenge, he’s not opening up any kind of commanding lead in the polls. In response, he’s adopted what is a time-honoured – or perhaps time-shaming – tactic of all politicians: trying to steal his opponents’ clothes. So he’s gone along with the austerity agenda too, if in a less draconian way. He backs the renewal of Britain’s nuclear arsenal. And today he’s been getting tough about immigration.

It’s certainly true that no party can win an election without attracting support from outside its core. That undoubtedly means that at times it has to adopt policies that will attract people who previously voted for others. The problem arises when that means abandoning one’s own core principles.

The saddest form that problem takes is the fragmentation of one’s own side. That was strikingly illustrated at that same debate last Thursday. The Welsh Nationalists, the Scottish Nationalists and the Greens had to speak up for traditional Labour values, desperately needed today, whenever Labour fell silent on them.

Labour’s roots are in the Trade Union movement, emasculated in the 1980s by Margaret Thatcher. Today, as in the US, the unions are a shadow of their old selves and, surprise, surprise, the rights of the workers they used to represent have been eroded almost to oblivion. The greatest abomination now is the zero-hour contract, which Miliband has rightly denounced. It ties an employee to a company, but without guaranteeing any work or pay. Nearly 700,000 people in Britain now have zero-hour contracts in their main employment (perhaps that should be “employment”).

That kind of phenomenon makes a return to campaigning trade unionism vital. To quote from Thursday’s debate, the problem in Britain isn’t excessive migration, it’s the deliberate undercutting of wages:

There are real issues in terms of the driving down of wages, and that has to be addressed. The way to address that is to raise the minimum wage to the living wage, and to strengthen Trade Unions. We should be looking at repealing the Trade Union legislation that Margaret Thatcher brought in, because if you have stronger Trade Unions, then you have a stronger protection of our public services and against the exploitation of workers.

Curiously, that piece of pure Labour rhetoric wasn’t pronounced by Miliband, but by Leanne Wood, leader of the Welsh nationalist Plaid Cymru.

More generally, the problem of child poverty was one of the great political themes of the previous Labour leader (and Prime Minister), Gordon Brown. You might expect the party leadership to share the concern that “…we have experts saying that if we continue with austerity cuts, by 2020 there are going to be one million more children across the UK living in poverty…”

Sadly, it wasn’t Miliband who said that either, but the Scottish Nationalists’ Nicola Sturgeon. And yet that’s the central issue: how do we prevent millions more of our most vulnerable being sacrificed on the altar of Conservative austerity?

The most shocking moment was when Sturgeon directly called on Miliband.

Tell me tonight, is it the case that you would rather see David Cameron go back into Downing Street, than work with me?

It’s true that Miliband didn’t rule out collaboration short of a coalition, and maybe on 8 May when, as seems likely, it emerges that he will need SNP support to form a government, we’ll finally get a positive response to that question. We certainly didn’t on Thursday.

Miliband is looking increasingly prime ministerial. He’s developed an image people can respect and even like. He’s left it late but there may still be time. Now he needs to be clear about the goal: we need the Tories out of Downing Street before they wreak the kind of damage their austerity policies have promised. Again, Nicola Sturgeon got it right:

We have a chance to kick David Cameron out of Downing Street. Don’t turn your back on it. People will never forgive you.

Nor should they.

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