On that emotionally charged day in Manchester in late September 2010 when Ed Miliband narrowly beat his brother David to become the new leader of the British Labor Party—largely thanks to trade union votes, Conservatives rejoiced. The younger Miliband, they thought, was too woolly and too left-wing to lead a Labor resurgence; they considered David a much tougher opponent.
In opposition since May 2010, after 13 years in government, Labor faced a twin struggle: to convince voters to take them seriously as stewards of the economy again and to make their new leader, only 40 and with relatively thin ministerial experience at the time of his election, plausible as the country’s next prime minister.
It has not been an easy ride. Despite the fact that the Tories imposed harsh austerity measures with their Liberal Democrat coalition partners, their systematic campaign of blaming the economic mess on Labor’s mismanagement paid off for a while. People were unhappy about the cuts, but they didn’t want to hear Labor’s alternative proposals—they held them responsible for the mess.
Voters seemed particularly skeptical about Miliband. His net approval ratings were deep in the red and remain negative today, though much less so. Polls released just before the party’s annual conference in October placed the percentage of those who thought him fit to be prime minister between a paltry 19 percent and a still-pretty-miserable 28 percent.
But things have been improving for the party. This is partly down to series of own-goals conceded by the current government, in policy as well as presentation. From the embarrassing U-turns on tax policy in the spring budget to the furor stemming from chief parliamentary whip Andrew Mitchell’s reference to the police as “plebs,” David Cameron’s cabinet has been dropping the ball left, right and center. Meanwhile, the UK’s relapse into recession in late 2011, which it only recently (in the third quarter of 2012) has emerged from, seemed to confirm the core Labor argument that the government cut too far and too fast, thus undermining the recovery that had been under way at the time of the 2010 general election.
This has cost the country economically and the Conservative party politically. In this week’s autumn budget statement, chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne conceded that growth in the next few years would be much lower than previously forecast and that the signature targets of eliminating the structural deficit and getting the debt-to-GDP ratio on a downward trajectory by 2015 (net debt is expected to peak at 80 percent) would both be pushed back for later. The speech led the rating agency Fitch to refer to the weakening credibility of the UK’s AAA credit rating. The Conservatives, who were tied with Labor in the polls in the early part of the year, have for months now been trailing them, in the past few weeks by an average of 10 percentage points.
The next election, of course, is ages away (May 2015, unless the coalition collapses). The Conservatives are betting that a renewed recovery and what they perceive as Miliband’s weakness as a candidate will give them more than a fighting chance. But when it comes to the man they tried to tag as “Red Ed,” they seem to have overestimated their advantage.
Miliband’s hour-long speech at a party conference in Manchester on October 2 may come to be seen as a turning point, the moment he grew into his role. Speaking without notes and from the heart, audaciously assuming the mantle of the one-nation party from the great 19th century Tory prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, he explained how the approach of a Labor government would differ from that of David Cameron. It may have been a speech sketchy on detail, but it was delivered by a man who looked and sounded like a potential prime minister.
"Ed Miliband has set out One Nation Labour’s mission to rebuild Britain, a country where everyone has a stake, where prosperity is shared fairly and where we preserve the institutions that bind us together” says Rachel Reeves, shadow chief secretary of the Treasury, at 33 the youngest member of the Labor shadow cabinet. “He has defined the biggest issues, taken big decisions and put the government onto the back foot” Reeves points out.
Miliband hails from a fascinating family. His grandfather Samuel, a Polish Jew, is reported to have fought in the Red Army during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-21. His father Ralph, who immigrated to Britain to escape the Nazis, became one of the pre-eminent Marxist academics of his generation. He died in 1994, as his two sons were preparing to play vital roles in the remaking of the Labor Party in a direction that he certainly would not have approved of. As Miliband quipped in his conference speech: “My late father, as some of you know, wouldn’t agree with many of the things I stand for. He would’ve loved the idea of ‘Red Ed.’ But he would have been a little bit disappointed that it isn’t true.”
Instead of a reversion to socialist fundamentals, the approach the Labor leader is taking is reminiscent of that of Democrats in the United States. He is acknowledging that public borrowing has gone too far and that, therefore, many of the coalition’s spending cuts will remain in place. But he is insisting that those at the top, who he claims have had it too easy under the Tories (in last April’s budget the government cut the top tax rate by 5 percentage points), will be made to pay their fair share under a Miliband government. If he can get the balance right between necessary fiscal retrenchment and protecting the middle class and the most vulnerable, the austerity-first experiment of Cameron and Osborne may not last beyond one term.