Friday, 14 November 2014

Ed's invisible campaign

The Labour Party knew what it was getting when it chose Ed Miliband. When they went for him over David, they picked someone with policies they liked over someone more likely to win. It’s a choice familiar to game show viewers - they gambled. They could have made winning easier, but with a reduced prize - but they didn’t. They asked Hughie Green for the jackpot question. They took the larger offer, but let the Chaser come one step closer. In ‘Bullseye’ terms, Ed Miliband is the speedboat.

It was the act of a party that had its fingers burnt by Tony Blair, a man who couldn’t have lost them an election if he wanted to, but who scarcely ever warmed their hearts. Ed was the opposite of that. He said exactly what they wanted to hear, but he made them fear he might turn Labour into a pamphlet-writing pressure group, rather than a manifesto-writing, country-running party.

And Labour did choose Ed Miliband, by the way. You may have heard, from everyone who has ever said anything about it anywhere, that Ed Miliband was elected by the unions. He wasn’t. Ed’s leadership victory was largely down to trade unionists, which is a very different thing indeed. Unions are large, fairly rich organisations run by more or less democratically chosen leaders. Trade unionists (or trades unionists, if you want to pretend you’re Tony Benn - and who doesn’t?) are people - human beings with bicycles and nail clippers and opinions. From the way that trade unionists were blamed for Ed Miliband’s win, you would think they’re not allowed to vote. That’s not trade unionists you’re thinking of there, that’s the sovereign and/or the insane.

If Ed Miliband had been elected by the unions, that would be sinister. But he wasn’t, so it isn’t. Anyone caught saying Ed Miliband was elected by the unions should be locked in a cupboard with Dennis Skinner until they’ve had a really good think about what they’ve done.

There’s a grand old American political saying: you campaign in poetry, you govern in prose. It’s very wise, very true and, for Ed Miliband, entirely unhelpful. Ed should avoid poetry, or any kind of campaigning that could be vaguely compared to it. Getting Ed to lift his eyes to the corner of the room and murmur ‘I have a dream’ will just make the country cringe. Even simple rhetorical techniques fail in Ed’s hands: when he told us stories of people he’s met, we didn’t picture charismatic walkabouts, we just imagined how relieved those people must have been when he left.

Instead, Ed should take an entirely prosaic approach to forming the next government. He should start doing, immediately, whatever his policies require for successful implementation. He can’t just start governing the country, or behave like he is, before he gets the job. But if Ed Miliband enters Downing Street on 8th May next year and starts work, there will unquestionably be things he’ll wish he’d done six months earlier. And those are the things he should be doing now.

It may seem a bit previous, because there’s an election to win yet. Is it presumptuous to plan for government now, when so much remains to be done to ensure the victory? The fact is, if you start doing the right things now, as much as you can, then that is the campaign. You won’t need to convince people that you’re up to the job if they can all see that you’ve started work already.

And when people see him doing these things, they will see ideas, direction, and purpose. In other words, he will have communicated his passion and his vision without ever having to tell us how darn much he cares. He will never persuade the country by talking - Ed needs to do. And then the country will realise that he’s the leader we need in our lives. Imagine the next six months as a romantic comedy, and Ed is the male lead, and the electorate the female. The point when she falls in love with him is not when he blurts out his feelings in a heart-wrenching speech. It’s when the boiler explodes and he turns up at 3am with a large spanner and a pile of blankets.

When Tony Blair entered Downing Street in 1997 he said, “Today, enough of talking. It is time now to do.” This line smartly deflected the allegation that New Labour was all about saying things, rather than doing things. When he persuaded us that he was all about the doing, he did it by saying. We really should have smelt a rat.

But Ed Miliband could actually do it. His could be a non-campaign campaign. It could be the ‘I’m too busy to campaign’ campaign. Instead of delivering a speech about Labour’s plans to freeze energy prices, let’s have him convening a meeting with energy companies and poverty campaigners - or some other, much smarter tactical move - and not even having a press conference afterwards.

Ed needs to be carrying out the policy equivalent of measuring up for curtains. The problem of opposition is often that you have to create the illusion of action. Being a minister is an incredibly busy job - being a shadow minister really isn’t. A minister is helping run a department of government with thousands of employees doing countless things. As a shadow minister, if you spend a couple of weeks in your pyjamas watching Netflix, there’s a serious possibility no one will notice. And being leader of the opposition is the same problem magnified.

The non-campaign campaign also helps an opposition move the narrative from negative to positive. First you must persuade the country that the government’s approach is wrong, then show them that yours is better. The ‘cost of living crisis’ is a good phrase, but it’s a critique of the current lot, rather than an outline of your own plan. When the slogans change to describe Labour’s plans, the criticism of Tory plans will then be implicit, and so be much more powerful.

If you stop members of the public on the street now and ask them, ‘What is Ed Miliband doing?’ you wouldn’t get many replies that would warm the hearts of Labour campaign managers. ‘Getting stabbed in the back’ would probably win, ahead of ‘gurning’ and ‘bacon’. The non-campaign campaign should be focused on that question, and how to get better answers. By election day, they should be hearing a whole range of positive answers.

Then the papers will have something more interesting to write about than a leadership crisis. Leadership crises are the easiest stories to magic out of thin air. If you decide there is one, then there is one. If you mention it a few days running on your front page, then it’s getting serious. Then the actual politicians start to think that it’s real, and start ringing their friends. And before you know where you are, it’s actually happening. And all because some left-wing publications decided, probably rightly, that a Labour leadership story would sell a few extra copies.

To any anti-Ed plotters, there must be two questions. Firstly - those flaws in Ed’s electability - you’re only noticing them now? What kind of honeymoon-goggles were you wearing for the first four years of his leadership that made you think getting into Downing Street would be a straightforward task?

And secondly, how long did you think this parliament was? Why would you wait four and half years before unseating the leader? Bearing in mind it took Labour four and a half months to get from election day 2010 to Ed’s appointment, that would give his successor a cool six weeks in the job before polling day - and that’s if you persuaded him to fall on his sword this weekend. Or, more likely, the candidates would make that calculation themselves, and decide that a cobbled coronation is a better option - which it is, but scarcely.

Ed’s not going anywhere. And if he carries on as he is, he is going to lose, or win very badly. A strategy to get Ed Miliband decisively into Downing Street must be very, very bold, but also utterly realistic. If you think that soundbites and photo opportunities aren’t important, for God’s sake stop making speeches about soundbites and photo opportunities. Instead, decide what’s important. Then don’t even tell us about it - just do it. And if the country and the media have to work slightly harder to understand what you’re up to, that’s fine - it’ll be good for us.

A totally different campaign would prepare the country for a totally different kind of government. And people will queue round the block to vote for that.

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