Ed Miliband’s leadership rests on personality politics

He talks, they listen. Stefan Rousseau/PA

The Labour Party has started bringing forward policies for 2015, and not a moment too soon. The time for policy reviews, which really were more like a synopsis of contemporary social theory than reviews of current policy, is all but over. Now we are talking real bread-and-butter stuff, the “cost of living crisis”: a price freeze on energy bills, a levy on the payday loans industry to pay for local credit unions, Rachel Reeves being tough on benefits, tough on the causes of benefits, and most recently a fairer deal for banks’ retail customers, announced in another no-notes speech at the University of London last Friday.

And so, Labour has begun filling its market stall of policies before the general election. The party leadership has certainly ruffled a few feathers in the process; Miliband has been compared to various dictators, from Mugabe to Stalin (which won’t do him any harm). It isn’t worth repeating the arguments against the energy freeze, but it’s safe to say the policy is probably unworkable; even Miliband admits he can’t control fluctuating global oil and gas prices. But to criticise policy for this reason alone is fundamentally misguided.

Thinking of policy as just a tool for problem-solving is a reductive way to understand politics in general. Polls show that the energy freeze is popular, and that most people think it probably won’t work. How can both of these be true?

The answer is that when Miliband sent out the message about freezing energy prices, there were in fact two messages: one about prices and one about his leadership. What a lot of observers are missing, supporters and “Milibashers” alike, is that the measures Miliband has announced are forming a narrative of leadership in the Labour Party, based on a series of policy announcements of different political colours; some are red, some pink, one or two blue. Miliband has spent the past three years having his credibility as a future prime minister questioned, and he’s only just now mounting a concerted challenge to this hostile narrative.

Leading from the left

Historically, Labour and the British left have had difficulty with the concept of leadership. This is partly because the left’s egalitarian thrust militates against putting people on pedestals. And yet, modern politics is inconceivable without leaders: on the left, as on the right, leaders now not only represent but symbolically “embody” their political movements. The Labour Party and Miliband alike will be judged not just by the colour of his policies, but by the content of his character.

To lead, Miliband has had to look back as well as forwards. The measures he has announced signal the revival of two slogans from the 2011 party conference season, largely forgotten outside Westminster, when Miliband spoke confidently of “producers versus predators” in a system of “responsible capitalism”. The revamped image he is now trying to project is of a strong leader who isn’t afraid to overrule predatory markets in pursuit of fair outcomes for the struggling and marginalised.

Labour’s policy narrative is now a direct appeal to voters’ emotions and morals, and this makes it almost populist. We should not be so cautious about this word; populism wins elections, especially if the opposition can set the agenda on the everyday, human impact of the coalition’s economic policies.

We can see then that the measures now being announced by Miliband are designed to help form an idea of his character in the public imagination. The announcements of the last few months have seen him craft policy not just from dry calculations of cost and benefit, but also with an eye to how it will reflect his projected moral values. Miliband is positioned as a friend to those who can’t make ends meet, a son defending his father’s memory, a bulwark against vested interests, the ethical leader prepared to stand up to the likes of Murdoch – and all this in the name of ordinary people.

Mark Ferguson, editor of Labour List, recently wrote that we should now expect at least “one assault on the cost of living per month until the election”, and I think this is the model Miliband will follow in 2014 and into 2015. Some of the policies may even be good; many will have an emotional and moral dimension, and tying this ethical discourse to the quintessentially sensible idea of auditing Labour’s manifesto before the general election is a masterstroke. But we should bear in mind not just the policies Miliband and his team are now beginning to deploy, but the Miliband they’re trying to portray.

A few months ago, I suggested that Labour needed a theory of leadership. We are arguably beginning to see one forming, as Miliband starts to position himself as the no-notes-needed principal author of the party’s policy platform. If the Labour Party can combine its recent pronouncements on the banking system, energy bills, and loan sharks with a sense that they are embarked on a programme of national renewal via big and bold 1945-style decision-making, Miliband could be headed for No. 10 as a leader with a moral purpose, a personal vision, an emotional appeal – and a convincing plan.