Politics is changing. No, politics has changed. Out there in the real world people treat politicians not as leaders but as obstacles. The idea of macho and charismatic leaders making promises to do things for people is scorned. The best politicians recognise that a fundamental change is needed to our basic conception of what leadership is – and Ed Miliband knows this better than anyone.
The set text for political leadership is still Mrs Thatcher’s speech to the Conservative party conference in Brighton in 1980. As the country began to suffer under high interest rates, and cabinet ‘wets’ urged a change in policy, the Iron Lady was defiant. She declared:“To those waiting with bated breath for that favourite media catchphrase, the ‘U-turn’, I have only one thing to say: U turn if you want to. The lady’s not for turning.” A paradigm – in truth, a myth – had been created.
But the leaders who will succeed in politics now and in the future will not be those who hoard power only to dazzle us with short, sharp displays, designed to win a few positive headlines or achieve a brief spike in the polls. They will be those who understand the nature of power, and who know best how to give it away.
Ed Miliband is not a leader in the traditional mould. Nor is he someone who is connecting particularly well with the public, partly because Westminster is unable to deal with someone who doesn’t fit their biases, and partly because Ed is still figuring out what kind of leader he wants to be.
Yet his less dogmatic, more consensual style represents a brave challenge to a 30 year orthodoxy. Ed is not a flamboyant, pose-adopting performer. He prefers a conversational tone. Meetings with him are conducted a bit like seminars – hence some of the sceptical comments about the ‘donnish’ nature of his utterances. But he has displayed – publicly at least – impressive resilience in the face of pretty unrelenting (and at times highly personal) criticism.
In terms of party management, Ed’s non-confrontational style has also paid dividends – even if the absence of public rows has led some to insist that not enough tough decisions can have been taken. The real leadership test will follow the election, however: keeping his cabinet in check, satisfying the demands and expectations of a volatile and excitable media and managing egos. Whether he can prove to be an effective chief executive on that model is necessarily as yet unknown. But he may well surprise us all.
So far, Ed has been at his best when he has harnessed the popular power of civil society groups such as 38 Degrees and Hacked Off. Some will argue that this is a sign of his failure to stand out as a leader, but in truth, the public don’t care for‘more of the same’. While Ed has been credited with victories on issues from forests to phone hacking, he has had the judgement to know that a communal sense of power and achievement is not only shared by the entire Labour party, but by much larger groups of people.
However, the real test of his leadership is still to come. If he can help steer both the party and the country to a better under- standing of how modern leadership needs to work, that power is strengthened when it is shared, then he could change our notion of leadership forever.
This article was originally published in the Autumn edition of the Fabian Review