29/07/2013 13:43 BST | Updated 28/09/2013 06:12 BST

Ed Miliband Is an Unusually Strong Leader

When he was leader of the Opposition, David Cameron took no stands. His was a 'warm words' strategy. He showered the country with promises such as to prioritise the NHS and to lead the greenest government ever - which he then broke. Ed Miliband has taken almost the opposite approach. He has spent much of his leadership spoiling for a fight.


Prime Minister David Cameron has a new plan to win the election. It is quite simple. He will call leader of the Opposition Ed Miliband weak at every opportunity.

It is a plan that has been honed by the Tories' election strategist, Lynton Crosby. It is not a sophisticated plan, but it has its own logic. Polling groups repeatedly tell Crosby that the biggest danger for Miliband is that people see him as weak.

But there are two problems with this plan - a small one and a big one.

The small one is that, ironically, David Cameron's own position is incredibly weak. True, there is no immediately credible challenger around at the moment. But there is incalculably more on the 'weakness' side of the ledger. He is the first Tory leader in living memory to rely on another party to get anything done. He is the first to experience a serious challenge from a new party to his right - UKIP. He is weakened by the perception that he lacks convictions, and by his government's many U-turns, which encourage those who want things from him to ask for them. His party's average member is in their sixties - not so useful for energetic campaigning at the next election. He did not win the last election. And after a campaign of brutal cuts and an economy which has more or less flatlined since he entered power, it is hard to see why he is likely to get more votes next time than he did last time.

But there is a bigger reason why the plan probably won't work: Ed Miliband is in fact proving to be a remarkably strong leader.

First there is the the way he got the job: by standing against the man who was widely tipped to win the leadership - who happened to be his brother. That is not a weak thing to do, and the public know it.

Then, there is the way he has conducted the leadership. When he was leader of the Opposition, David Cameron took no stands. His was a 'warm words' strategy. He showered the country with promises such as to prioritise the NHS and to lead the greenest government ever - which he then broke.

Ed Miliband has taken almost the opposite approach. He has spent much of his leadership spoiling for a fight.

It started with Rupert Murdoch. Let us not forget that it has been an iron law of politics since most of today's Cabinet were in school that you did not take on Rupert Murdoch. And that if you were silly enough to try, you would end up fatally weakened.

Ed did. And not just by taking the easy option of calling for specific action targeted at the paper where the scandal began - that would have been a safer way of doing it - but by calling for a whole judicial enquiry. Rupert Murdoch probably thought that Ed would leave it at that. But no - when the leader of the Opposition turned up at the proceedings of that enquiry, he said explicitly that if he were Prime Minister, he would seek to limit the percentage of media that one man could own.

It continued with the banks. Many in his party would have preferred him to stick safely to making outraged noises about misconduct. Much safer. But no, he again called for a wider enquiry. When Cameron accepted that, he pushed for one wide enough to cover the whole culture of banking which had led to the crisis - a much bigger threat to the banks. After that, he threatened them with separation between their investment (casino) and retail (piggy bank) arms. Each time he had the opportunity to ease off, he went further. These are not the actions of a weakling.

Now some will argue that the banks and the media were both wounded giants: once-powerful interests which had been left limping by the financial crisis and the phone hacking scandal respectively.

But Ed didn't stop with them. In the last few years he has taken on the energy companies too. Not just in a small way, for example by threatening to legislate to make sure that they give the elderly their cheapest tariffs (although he has done that too). But by actually threatening to break up the Big Six unless they start giving consumers a better deal. That is not a small threat for a potential Prime Minister to make.

He has done something similar with land developers. Labour is considering giving councils new powers to penalise development firms which don't build on the land they have so that they can instead wait for it to go up in value.

Some will argue that that is small fry. But then there was Google. Most recently, he challenged them to pay more tax. And he did so in a speech at their own 'Google Tent' event. It is hard to think of David Cameron saying anything at any time that was as provocative to his audience.

Throughout the last few years, he has produced evocative phrases such as 'squeezed middle,' 'predatory or productive capitalism.' and 'One Nation Labour' which have first been mocked and then, within months, become part of the political vocabulary. He is leading the political debate.

And all the time, he's stayed cool - that's the kind of steady strength under fire that the country needs from a REAL leader.

Still, some will say, he is leader of the Opposition - unless and until he has the opportunity to walk the walk, it is relatively cheap for him to talk the talk. And it is true that in most areas, words are all an Opposition has. But there is one big exception: the leader's own party. Here he can not just talk, he can act.

Which brings us to the Unions. For years, the relationship between the Unions and the party was seen, on both sides, as not quite working. The party - both the majority of the Parliamentary party and most of the members - felt uncomfortable with Union bosses' sense of entitlement to influence policy, and the Unions felt frustrated that they they were unable to influence policy more. No leader felt strong enough to do anything about it. Until now. If Ed's plan works, the union bosses will have to concentrate on managing down to their members, not up to future leaders of the Labour Party, the party will gain thousands more members, and the Tories will be deprived of a stick they have used to beat Labour. Added to that is the fact that he's persuaded the party to vote to abolish the annual election of the shadow cabinet - further signs of sturdy leadership.


That is why Ed's latest move is the strongest move of all. It shows real political guts. David Cameron might hope to win by calling Ed Miliband weak again and again. But if Miliband carries on as he has started, that plan will fail.

Dr Azeem Ibrahim is the Executive Chairman of The Scotland Institute.