Ed Miliband’s speech: tricky message, poor timing

Ed MilibandI’ve quite a lot of time for Ed Miliband. Politics needs intelligent, thoughtful folk with their hearts in the right place.

I respect, for example, that he held out last year against the superficially attractive urge to call for an in/out EU referendum advocated by more opportunistic Labour colleagues who relished the idea of stirring Tory discontent with Cameron. Miliband, rightly, decided to put national interest ahead of narrow party interest.

But there are evident troubles with his leadership, crystallised by his speech yesterday in which he acknowledged his own image problems: “I am not trying to win a photo-op contest in the next 10 months. And I wouldn’t win it if I tried.”

There is some sense in making virtue of necessity. But this acceptance has come only after four years of trying to beat David Cameron at the presentation game, and failing. If he had’t tried so hard in the first place yesterday’s concession would never have been necessary. Miliband is trying to argue for authenticity but he’s done so at the price of highlighting that for four years he’s not been authentic.

His problem now is that every time he mounts a photo opportunity to draw attention to Labour’s policy positions commentators will point out, not unjustly, that they thought he’d eschewed such fripperies. Yet again the focus will be on the leader’s style, not his substance — and this time Mliband will have only himself to blame for that.

The biggest problem with his speech yesterday, though, was the timing.

Friday saw the release of the latest GDP figures showing the UK economy return to its pre-crisis levels just as the IMF upgrades its growth forecast to show the UK growing faster than any other country in the world. There are all sorts of criticisms that can be made of the Coalition’s economic policies — that austerity delayed the return to growth, that the belated recovery is inherently unstable, that those benefiting from growth are primarily those who didn’t suffer recession.

What did the Labour leader focus on yesterday? That in the words of this BBC headline, “I can’t beat PM on image”. If there were ever a time to make this speech (I’m not sure there was) it wasn’t yesterday.

This isn’t the first time Labour’s timing has been, to put it kindly, odd. Miliband launched the major policy document, the IPPR-authored Condition of Britain, on 19th June: the same day as the crucial England v Uruguay World Cup match. Result: no-one (other than politicos) even noticed.

Such flaws might seem minor. In a sense they are. The voters won’t properly tune into the political debate until at least the start of 2015. We’re living through the phoniest of phony wars at the moment.

But the next election looks like it will be tight. Based on the current polls, Labour is in the stronger position, even on course for a small overall majority. Yet it will only take the Ukip vote to unwind a little and a few former Lib Dem voters to return and the Tories will start to overtake Labour. Unforced errors are a luxury none can afford.

* Stephen was Editor (and Co-Editor) of Liberal Democrat Voice from 2007 to 2015, and writes at The Collected Stephen Tall.

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19 Comments

  • Charles Rothwell 26th Jul '14 - 3:21pm

    I saw “Newsnight” yesterday evening which had a section on this. The lady from Labour (who has organised Milliband’s leadership campaign and thought he was the greatest leader at least since Moses) was instantly forgettable but I thought the ‘Times’ leader writer (who used to write speeches for Blair) was very good and actually dismissed the idea that “image does not matter”, stating that it DOES matter and it reflects what the voting public (who are not stupid) actually have a thumb-nail sketch of leaders. The point he focused on (rather than spin, timing, “another week, another policy” launches) was that Labour is just hopelessly and consistently behind on every reading when it comes to the electorate having faith in Labour being left in charge of the economy (which de facto means people certainly do not trust Balls in the least). There is good reason for this, both at national level (http://www.moneymarketing.co.uk/opinion/if-labour-wants-to-be-trusted-on-the-economy-it-has-to-earn-it/2011909.article) and, as I have just learned this morning at local level as well (as our local hospital trust has been put into special measures for being £20 million+ in debt and (despite spending thousands on culsultants) is in as hopeless a situation has been for years). This latter development has been on the cards for years and can be summed in a set of initials and two names: PFI, Brown and Balls!
    I agree entirely with Stephen’s prognoses for 2015: do everything we possibly can to dampen the Kipper wave (and I regret to say that I shall very likely be voting tactically in May in order (at all costs) to prevent what happened in our local council ward (vote split between Labour and Conservatives and we ended up with a Kipper councillor!) but, more importantly and looking towards the future, when the Kippers have gone the way of Poujardism, Powellism, the Common Wealth Party etc, the crucial thing is to start winning back supporters, voters and activists lost to the Greens and Labour and that needs intensive debate about policies, leadership and presentation.

  • The solution I feel to the 2015 election, is for the Liberal Democrats to cast off the baggage by rebranding as The Whigs.

  • Richard Harris 26th Jul '14 - 7:23pm

    Two things.

    I thinks most people will react positively to a politician that admits they have a “weakness” (if less slick presentation is a weakness at all).

    Secondly, I just loved the phrase ” he’d eschewed such fripperies”. Belongs in Dickens.

  • Tony Dawson 26th Jul '14 - 7:32pm

    Makes a change from leaders with tricky timing and poor message? 😉

  • Helen Dudden 26th Jul '14 - 9:47pm

    I think he is the greatest leader since Moses. I liked him too.

  • Jayne Mansfield 27th Jul '14 - 4:24pm

    Me too, Helen.

    I have never known a leader who has had to withstand such a battering and behaved with such steel and dignity. Some of the early caricatures would not have been out of place in 1930′ s Germany.

    I would like to know why Stephen thinks that anyone would return to voting Lib Dem (although Until 2015 I won’t have the opportunity to join the leavers). If I lived in Nottinghamshire and needed to vote for a left wing Liberal, I would vote Ken Clarke. I ‘ m pretty shocked by some of the opinions expressed on here, they are far to the right of the Tory wet voters that I know.

  • Helen

    ” he is the greatest leader since Moses”

    Hardly, he believed in increasing taxation and spending, but won’t say so.

    Politicians are held in poor regard by the public not because, as some claim, because they don’t stand for anything. Most members of the public have picked up on what they stand for but the politicians spend all their time trying to hide from what they stand for.

    Hinting you believe in something but not being willing to actually say so is not leadership.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Jul '14 - 5:20pm

    Moses at times found life difficult. But then, as someone who believes in a religion older than time, and not finding life very kind to my kind at present, I have little to say.

    Of course, the Lib Dems know it all.

  • Leekliberal 27th Jul '14 - 6:27pm

    @Helen Dudden 26th Jul ’14 – 9:47pm
    I think he is the greatest leader since Moses. I liked him too.
    Hardly a surprise as I understand you are a Labour Party member.

  • Peter Watson 27th Jul '14 - 7:36pm

    Leekliberal “Hardly a surprise as I understand you are a Labour Party member.”
    If so, then that is a great shame for the Lib Dems. On education matters on LibDemVoice, Helen and Julian Critchley have been far and away the best-informed and most passionate writers. I think that Julian was a long-standing Lib Dem who felt that he could no longer support the party, and if this is the case for Helen as well then that speaks volumes for the way the party has changed, sacrificing the goodwill of teachers in order to support Gove over the last few years.

  • Leekliberal 27th Jul '14 - 7:52pm

    @Peter Watson ‘If so, then that is a great shame for the Lib Dems’
    Maybe so, but I am old fashioned enough to believe that supporters of other political parties should be up-front about it when pushing their views to us.

  • Helen Dudden 27th Jul '14 - 8:15pm

    Moses is not political, he a respected leader of the Jews, as I said I like Moses, but, then I would.

    If Ed can stand up for what he believes against all odds, then he can have my respect.

    No turning back for some us.

    Well I think I have said enough, back to what I believe in.

  • “He is the greatest leader since Moses”. Actually I nearly responded when Helen wrote this by saying that I’d never realised she was a satirist – but now I realise she was serious. Jayne Mansfield and Julian Critchley – please be assured that there are many people who post on LibDem Voice who are still members of the Party like myself who really value informed and concerned criticism from people who no longer feel able to support us. There are many people who have spent their lives working for the ideals that the Liberal Party/Liberal Democrats have espoused who have still not given up hope that the Party can be reclaimed. With regard to Ed Miliband, I believe that he is a good man but doing an impossible job. Labour does not deserve to win the next election, historically is unlikely to do so, and is probably better off in the long run not winning it. Ed will carry the can for this, but he has done his best with an impossible hand. He will go on to do great things outside politics, and good luck to him.

  • Peter Watson 27th Jul '14 - 9:14pm

    @Leekliberal
    Mea culpa. I suddenly realised I was mixing up Helen Dudden with Helen Tedcastle. I apologise to all concerned for any confusion caused. I shouldn’t post while watching TV.
    However, if I search this site for “Helen Dudden member” the first result is, “I was a member of the Lib Dems for over 21 years” (https://www.libdemvoice.org/tory-rebels-launch-their-own-alternative-queens-speech-as-helpful-reminder-of-why-lib-dems-vital-to-cameron-35014.html). It was Helen T.’s posts about education that I had in mind, but Helen D. also represents a loss to the party.

  • Stephen Hesketh 27th Jul '14 - 9:26pm

    @Leekliberal 27th Jul ’14 – 7:52pm
    In reply to Peter Watson ‘If so, then that is a great shame for the Lib Dems’
    “Maybe so, but I am old fashioned enough to believe that supporters of other political parties should be up-front about it when pushing their views to us.”

    Indeed. We have enough spin, smoke and mirrors and saying one thing and going off and doing something else from our own side without others getting in on the act as well. Contributors from other parties should have the decency to say who they are. Could we introduce an up-front pre-post party membership ‘voting’ button to indicate our allegiance, if any?

  • Peter Watson 27th Jul '14 - 9:31pm

    @Leekliberal “I am old fashioned enough to believe that supporters of other political parties should be up-front about it when pushing their views to us.”
    This is an interesting point. Obviously there is a separate part of the site for members, and here in the public part the names of members are highlighted if they post when logged in but for everybody else it is hard to be sure. One regular poster (“Mack (Not a Lib Dem)”) makes it clear in his pseudonym, and some others’ names click through to personal blogs which also make their positions clear. But for the rest of us it’s hard to be sure where somebody is coming from. I post under my real name, and I’ve stated a few times that I was a member a long time ago, always voted for Lib Dems and their predecessors up until 2010 (apart from a tactical Labour vote in 1997) but now vote against, and I engage with LibDemVoice to see if I could return to supporting the party (not yet). But it would be a bit much to type that every time I post. Perhaps LDV could allow all posters to create a profile so that if you click on my name you’d see a bit about me and a link to my posts.

  • Jayne Mansfield 27th Jul '14 - 9:52pm

    @ tonyhill
    I understand and I sympathize.

    I shall be taking Matthew Huntbach’s advice when deciding on where to place my vote in 2015. If I find that the candidate is one in tune with my values , I shall still vote Lib Dem. If not, I Shall not.

  • Jayne – that is all I could ever hope for. I do not blame anyone who voted for us in 2010 and before for feeling let down by some of the things we have supported in the coalition. But remembering the authoritarianism of Labour in government there is still a need for a party which espouses liberal values. I just hope that it can again be the Liberal Democrat Party and that we will have learned enough from the last five years (as it will be after the 2015 election) to ensure that we never again betray our core principles for the sake of power (of a sort).

  • Helen Dudden 28th Jul '14 - 2:39pm

    I have always posted under my real name, always written under my real name, if it is law or simply comments ,I have nothing ton hide.

    I care about the effects on family life of international child abduction, and have written for the Hague Convention judges, also made comments on the Brussels 11a. I go to London quite often to do with pro bono consultation on new additions to family law. I have even had some things written into law.

    This is not political, and it was your Party, that refused to listen to my comments and take me seriously.

    Your Party did not listen on the subject of the Bedroom Tax, see how far my comments go back. On the subject of Food Banks, it was Don Foster MP, who was praising this at a meeting I was at, I walked out.

    My religion, insists that I have compassion for those who suffer where ever they are, please take note and try to remember when the critics start again, and I expect they will. I find the comments offensive, and most lack understanding, of how things really are.

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