Ed Miliband and the Liberal Democrats: what does an expert think?
Tim Bale is the author of the recently published Five Year Mission: The Labour Party under Ed Miliband, an excellent book which I reviewed in February. He’s also done an exclusive interview for Liberal Democrat Newswire on what Miliband’s leadership means for the Liberal Democrats. But first, I was intrigued by his choice of publication date…
Whether Miliband becomes Prime Minister in May will hugely influence how he’s record in opposition is seen. So why do a book just before rather than just after the election?
Good question. I actually think there’s a powerful trade-off involved. If you do it afterwards, you’ve got both the upsides and the downsides of hindsight. More perspective but a perspective which is inevitably skewed towards trying to establish precisely why a party and its leader won or lost. The explanations for the result go way beyond what people tried to do in order to win. It’s their efforts – and why they try to do what they do – that really interest me.
Besides, I did the same thing with The Conservative Party from Thatcher to Cameron and got a chance to do a new edition soon after the election. So you never know!
In your book, Ed Miliband is – of course – not Prime Minister. Yet the Parliament has been hung all through his term in post. Why do you think there’s never been any meaningful speculation about him becoming Prime Minister ahead of the next election, not even speculation early in the Parliament that the coalition might fall apart and him achieve this a few years hence?
I think, in asking that question, you’ve actually put your finger on what (aside, of course, from what’s been going on in the Labour Party!) has to be the most interesting and intriguing puzzle of the 2010-2015 period, namely why didn’t the Lib Dems implode – or explode, depending on your preference.
Much as I’d like to bring everything back to Labour and Ed, I don’t think the solution to that puzzle really involves either of them, except insofar as they may have contributed (and then only very marginally) to the decision by Clegg and his colleagues to go with Cameron at the end of the ‘five days in May’.
If you pressed me to try and solve that puzzle, I’d say the solution has three parts. First would be the Lib Dems’ political naivety (the absurd faith in the idea that voters’ would eventually reward the party for acting responsibly ‘in the national interest’).
Second would be the Lib Dem’s rationality (the knowledge that parties which crash out of a coalition don’t normally do much better at the next election than if they’d stayed in, and find themselves less likely to be invited to join governments in the future).
And the third would have to do with the years the Lib Dems spent in the wilderness – an experience that ensured that, when the chips were down, they behaved more like a tightly-knit family than a ‘normal’ political party.
Your account of Miliband’s actions over both the AV referendum and Lords reform is kinder to him than Liberal Democrat MPs would be, many of whom are very critical of what they saw as an unwillingness to show meaningful leadership, preferring instead to pay lip service to political reform followed by vacillation and then caving in to the vested anti-reform interests in his own party.
If Ed Miliband is Prime Minister in a hung Parliament, do you think he would have both the skill and inclination to push through substantive political reform even in the face of opposition from parts of his own party?
I’d like to think (although I can’t be sure) that we may have seen a different Miliband had the referendum been on a properly proportional system rather than what many of us in favour of reform saw as ‘a miserable little compromise’ – a shift to a system that (a) looked more likely to favour one party (the Lib Dems) than others and (b) would ultimately have been incapable of bringing about the change this country so obviously needs given the glaring mismatch between twenty-first century voters’ preferences and the parliamentary line-up.
Probably more importantly, I think Ed realised pretty quickly that AV was doomed because its main advocate – Nick Clegg – was by that time utterly radioactive as far as voters were concerned. Given that, it just wasn’t worth investing his time and his (very limited!) political capital in the whole thing.
As to the future, it rather depends on how much else there is to do (always a problem for reformers), and whether Ed (and those around him) are as convinced that politics-as-usual is bust as they seem to think is the case with economics-as-we-know-it. Some of them get it, but many are much more focused on the latter than the former – even if, in my view, the two things are inextricably linked.
To be honest, though, I don’t think electoral reform will come about until the Tories finally realise that they face possibly insurmountable difficulties in the future in forming a government while a radical right-wing populist party on its flanks wins loads of votes but no seats, thereby depriving them of otherwise very handy parliamentary support.
If people like reading your book, what one other book would you recommend they turn to next?
I don’t need to tell you of all people that Amazon’s algorithms (and star reviewers!) probably do a much better job than I could of answering that particular question.
But, inasmuch as a reader shares an author’s interests, then they might want to get hold of a book that’s (literally!) on my wish-list: Mad Men and Bad Men: What Happened When British Politics Met Advertising.