Published on October 1st, 2013 |
by Eleanor Newis
Image © 2012 Andrew Duffell
“Red Ed” or “Argon Ed?”
At the Labour Conference this year, despite being overshadowed by the words of Damian McBride and rather dubious poll ratings, Ed Miliband managed to do something truly incredible – he managed to talk for over an hour without notes, and even spend some of that time saying what he thought. Exciting, no? Yes, there was that wistful “she said I was an action hero” anecdote, and yes he spent the entire speech calling his audience “friends” as if PR had told him not to say “comrades”. But it wasn’t bad, was it? Was it? That speech made eight front pages of national papers and that catch-phrase, which admittedly I find personally quite grating (so grating, I’m only going to mention it once throughout this article) has been played on loop by news channels. “We’re Britain, we’re better than this.” So, perhaps Miliband is finally getting serious. The problem – at least for the Labour Party – is that so far Miliband has demonstrated only two settings, best defined by colour; namely, red and beige.
Labour are ahead in the polls; as the opposition to a recession coalition government, this is not exactly surprising, but still promising. Less promising is Miliband’s personal ratings. The latest YouGov poll, published in The Sunday Times, shows up rather embarrassingly: on the 16th August, his rating was, ahem, minus 42%. Apparently 23% asked think he is doing well, and 65% that he is doing badly. Not ideal. Added to this, the Labour lead in the polls has dropped from 11% to 6%; while Labour can partly blame this on that pesky economic recovery, they can’t deny that the public don’t seem exactly struck by their leader. Interestingly, Miliband is usually scored highly on traits like “honest”, “in touch with ordinary people” and “sticks to what he believes in” – traits that are difficult to come by in career politicians, and which you’d think the public would remember. The leadership issue was summed up by one Nigel in Lincolnshire texting to BBC Five Live Radio last week, “Ed Miliband is like Argon. No one knows what it is, and it’s totally inert. He is the political equivalent of beige.”
Is this better or worse than The Daily Mail’s “Red Ed” campaign? Miliband has got himself into the age old situation of a left-wing leader: to the great British public he is either unknown, floating vaguely in the centre ground, or he is waving a red flag and summoning the ghost of Lenin. His conference speech then, was a step in the right direction. He has at least announced policies, such as the freeze on energy prices, proposals to lower the voting age, and a use-or-lose-it policy to combat so called “land hoarding”. Granted, maybe to some people this does seems like summoning the ghost of Lenin, but at least these people have noticed, and this is the crucial thing. In order to have a healthy political system, we need proper debate about policy, and about different responses to our economic situation. If Miliband is the political equivalent of beige, then one can only imagine the colour spectrum for the other parties (ironically, the Liberal Democrats would probably have to be colourless, or – excuse the pun – transparent).
In my very humble opinion, Miliband’s speech was good. And it was good, not because he remembered everything, and not because he told a funny story, and not because I even agree with the policies. No, this was a good speech because it managed to provoke the national treasure, Boris Johnson, into forming coherent sentences. That’s right, harmless little Ed Miliband has achieved what no Labour politician has before: he has extracted coherent argument and criticism from Boris. His arguments are honestly very sane – if you still don’t believe me, understandably, then get yourself to The Telegraph website – and centre on the energy price freeze. The worry, according to Johnson, is that once the prize freeze time is up the companies will immediately take up prices more to compensate for their losses; this is a perfectly legitimate critique of a policy that needs some ironing out before the election. Hopefully, this speech heralds a new phase in UK politics, as the countdown to the election begins: a phase where policy is interrogated and coherent arguments offered aplenty.
However, the colour problem still endures: surely I can’t be the only person in Britain who wants this debate? Yet over and over again, politicians and the media alike avoid the type of detailed criticism that [and no, I didn’t think I’d ever say this either] Johnson puts forward in his article. Instead, The Daily Mail persists on calling Miliband “Red Ed” whenever he says something that isn’t “Argon-like”. In the run up to the election, Miliband needs to find a colour in between. He must outline his policies in more detail; he must back them up with figures and answer the criticism levelled. But he is not the only one who needs to do some work in the run-up to 2015; the British electorate need to get their act together. If we want a functioning, legitimate and beneficial political system in this country, we must appreciate difference, instead of twitching every time we sniff an ideological stand point. Hence a note to Eddie Mair: you cannot open an interview by sighing heavily and then saying “this is Socialism isn’t it?” as if rooting out possible suspects for deportation. What you can do is ask relevant and probing questions and respect the answers. If we harangue our politicians every time they announce policy slightly more left or right of centre than before, we risk boxing them into the centre ground that we so regularly lament. Let Ed speak, and let Boris speak in return; then have a go yourself, and don’t be scared of Lenin’s ghost.