Journalism is the first draft of history, not the last. For a good example it’s worth turning to the first few months of Gordon Brown’s regime, which were described almost universally as a brilliant example of political leadership – as the new PM tackled floods and whatever else. In retrospect this was a rather generous verdict.
And according to the journalistic narrative, Ed Miliband has had a catastrophic start to 2012. Just awful. The Labour leader is up to his armpits and flailing, such is his predicament. Such is the verdict from many of our most learned commentators of late.
But what exactly has gone wrong? When you stop to think about it, some elements to this narrative of “Ed’s terrible January” are hardly major.
There was a typo on his Twitter feed. He looked a bit tired on the Marr show. A 20-something called Luke has joined the Tory party. An opinion poll yesterday suggested that Labour would be 3 points ahead if David Miliband was in charge. (Or 20 points behind under Yvette Cooper, not that you’ll have read this anywhere.)
So far, so much chaff.
What has been less remarked on is that slowly the Labour leadership is fleshing out its big idea – “responsible capitalism”. And the policy ideas coming out are really not bad at all.
We were among those who mocked when Miliband came out with the concept during the Labour conference (in fact John Denham trailed it in the FT first), not least because of the awkward wording. Promising to attack “predators” and reward “producers” would seem to divide the corporate world into two binary groups – ignoring the real world. And there was also the matter that Labour officials were simultaneously negotiating a £1m donation from Andrew Rosenfeld, a businessman who spent the previous five years in Switzerland as a tax exile.
So the big concept did not get off to a good start. But Miliband has always insisted that the proposals were more subtle than at first suggested – and that they only reflected a debate already taking place in the business world. Had he referred to a distinction between companies behaving in a “predatory” or “productive” manner – making the point that many are capable of both – the speech might have worked rather better. As it is, Miliband now points out rightly that other political leaders (Clegg, Cable, Cameron) are now signing from a similar hymn sheet about responsible capitalism.
The other criticism is that Miliband appeared to criticise bad behaviour without having any firm idea of how to tackle it. So he knew that Southern Cross was disastrous – but lacked the remedies for preventing a repeat.
Yet the last three weeks have seen several instances of the shadow cabinet fleshing out the bare bones of what had only been an intellectual, hypothetical idea. All of them have the advantage of not having any immediate costs to the government, so the question of “costing” doesn’t come into it.
* Replacing the membership of companies’ nomination committees with shareholders
* Changing the takeover code so a predator needs 66 per cent of the votest instead of 50 per cent
* Changing the takeover rules so that hedge funds which buy shares after the takeover approach no longer have voting rights
* Stopping the unfair charges on credit cards
All of these go further than the coalition has done and therefore outflank it on a very topical issue. (Today’s announcement on exec pay by Vince Cable doesn’t quite live up to his original rhetoric.) They also flesh out Miliband’s “direction of travel” on responsible capitalism and give people a chance to see how it might work in practice. (Although some of these are more “ideas” than “firm proposals”, as the Tories might point out).
All of these will be unpopular with companies; energy groups, banks, the City, institutional investors (they don’t want to sit on nomination committees) etc. But that’s kind of the point. Some might fear that the coalition will simply seize the best ideas and implement them; but that won’t necessarily happen. (Vince Cable considered similar changes to the takeover code but backed away from them).
All of this does not improve Labour’s most long-standing issue; its lack of credibility on the wider economic situation. Ed Balls may or may not be right that the coalition cuts are “too far and too fast”; unfortunately for him the argument can only be hypothetical – in that we don’t know what the economy would look like if Balls was in charge. For now the Labour posture (inaccurately presented as a major gear shift a week ago) rather smacks of politicians wanting their cake and eating it: we back the cuts, but we hate the cuts, we accept the necessity of cuts, but we will fight them in the Lords, we can’t promise to reverse them but will call for them not to happen. Confused?
Other problems remain for Miliband to address. The public have not exactly warmed to him and don’t see him as a natural-born leader. A spike in his polling after he stood up to Rupert Murdoch last summer has since disappeared. There are 13 years of Labour government which will be thrown back in his face. The party, when it is in the lead in opinion polls, is not far enough in the lead.
Yet when early 2012 is written up in the history books, will it be the “Mili-disaster” version of January which appears? Or a more balanced verdict? That, of course depends on what happens next.