It's been a rollercoaster year for the Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband Association (DUEMA). Formed semi-seriously by Telegraph writer Iain Martin after the 2010 Labour leadership election, it subsequently became an in-joke among Miliband's detractors before being taken over and renamed the Don't Unseat Ed Miliband Association. The joke has now rebounded spectacularly following Miliband's barnstorming performance in Manchester and David Cameron has been effectively forced to re-launch the original DUEMA.
Conservative strategists who assumed that the leadership question would hand them a decisive advantage at the next elections will be hoping this is a flash in the pan. Here are six reasons why they are likely to be disappointed and why Miliband now has the edge over Cameron.
1. Miliband has the temperament of a winner.
A vital characteristic of leadership is the ability to cope with setbacks and move on. Dwelling on disappointment is not only a waste time and energy; it clouds judgement. Whereas Gordon Brown allowed his premiership to descend in a spiral of blame and frustration, Miliband's motto is 'Keep Calm and Carry On'. I saw him a couple of hours after one of his first outings at PMQs had misfired, expecting to find him in a bad mood. His attitude was cheerfully dismissive: there would be many other encounters at the dispatch box and his task would be to ensure that the good far outweighed the bad. As he showed again yesterday, he is meeting that goal. Cameron, it is said, reacts badly to setbacks, playing the blame game and surrounding himself with people who tell him what he wants to hear instead of what he needs to know. These are real sources of vulnerability in a leader.
2. Miliband knows what he wants.
It was pointed out recently that we seem to know less about what David Cameron stands for the longer he is in power. Compassionate Conservatism increasingly looks like an empty slogan while the Big Society has lost any focus it once had. The Government is identified almost exclusively with an austerity plan that is failing on its own terms. The opposite is true of Ed Miliband. He has defined his purpose by calling for a more responsible, productive and equitable form of capitalism; essentially a British version of the German/Nordic social market economy. Even those who disagree with that aim find it hard to fault the clarity and scale of its ambition. Critics demand more detail, but it is worth remembering that many of the policies we came to associate with Thatcherism weren't enacted until her second term. Thatcher knew that politics is first and foremost about big ideas. Miliband has one and Cameron does not.
3. Miliband is ahead of events.
Responsible capitalism isn't just a big idea; it is one that happens to be pushing with the grain of events. Critics rounded on Miliband a year ago when he drew a distinction between predators and producers. But the Libor rate-rigging scandal, the row over Stephen Hester's bonus, the rise of legal loan sharking and the G4S Olympic fiasco all proved him right. Polls show that voters agree. With living standards likely to be squeezed for the foreseeable future, energy and food prices set to rise and the bonus season not far off, anger at the behaviour of the business elite will not be going away any time soon. Perhaps even more significantly, Miliband is also about to be vindicated on borrowing and the deficit when the OBR reports ahead of the Autumn Statement that the government is on course to miss one and possibly both of its fiscal targets. Events have a habit of swinging the Labour leader's way.
4. Miliband has seized the ideological initiative.
Miliband has successfully shifted the national debate from a narrow focus on the pace of deficit reduction to the question of how the burden ought to be shared. The Conservatives have been trailing since he pounced on their decision to cut the top rate of tax in the budget. More than ever they are seen as the party of the rich, out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. Miliband's appropriation of the 'One Nation' label was a clever way of consolidating his hold over that terrain. It allows Labour to campaign as the party of egalitarian patriotism and reach beyond its natural constituencies of support. Cameron is belatedly trying to contest Labour's claim to the 'One Nation' tradition, but he is unable to do so at more than a rhetorical level. All of the Conservative Party's instincts about how to get the country moving suggest more incentives for the business elite and more pain for everyone else.
5. Miliband learns and adapts.
Miliband's performance at Labour conference surprised people who had written him off as a poor communicator. That's because he shares with Margaret Thatcher the ability to improve through force of will. In her early period as Leader of the Opposition, she was dismissed as wobbly and unconvincing. But through trial and error, not to mention a bit of coaching, she found the style for which she later became famous. Miliband knows that political leadership is a craft that has to be worked at and talks admiringly in private about the effort Tony Blair put into perfecting the performance aspects of his job pre-1997. His own hard work is now paying off and he has found new confidence in his ability to project himself effectively on the national stage. The prime minister remains a formidable communicator, as anyone who saw his statements on the Bloody Sunday and Hillsborough reports knows. But the Cameron you see now is the finished article. Miliband will carry on improving.
6. Miliband has united his party.
Cameron clearly wants to contest the next election on the centre ground, but his party shows no sign of being willing to let him. Conservative backbenchers remain deeply unhappy, convinced that Cameron's weakness and Liberal Democrat treachery are all that stand between them and their ability to sweep the country on a tough and uncompromising right-wing platform. They find it almost impossible to disguise their yearning to replace Cameron with Boris Johnson. Miliband, by contrast, no longer has a serious rival for the Labour leadership. The success of his Manchester speech certainly helped, but his ability to manage the party behind the scenes is the under-appreciated success of his leadership so far. By patiently winning over colleagues in private and impressing the rank and file in public, he has created a united party over which he now has a free hand.
The only downside is that even his enemies can't fail to have noticed that the game has changed. The ranks of the Don't Underestimate Ed Miliband Association are swelling and things can only get tougher.
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