Other than the shame of the Blair and Brown years, Labour's biggest problem is currently that of its leader, Ed Miliband's charisma. Or, more accurately, the lack thereof. Certainly, Miliband was never going to have it easy after the reign of his two predecessors: Two unwanted wars, with now since greatly questioned motives; playing lapdog to Bush's America; and presiding over the country whilst the global economy went into meltdown were never going to prove a rich history to look back on, but Labour's spin-camp haven't exactly been helping themselves of late.
A recent YouGov poll for Prospect Magazine showed that 68% of people don't know what Miliband stands for, compared to just 28% of those who do. And, bar his off-hand comment about 'bringing back socialism' in Brighton during the 2013 Labour Conference, it's a bit hard to see what his motives actually are.
It is no secret that the Labour leader's recent coverage in the press and reception in the public eye has been less than favourable. Having been grievously wounded last year by the Daily Mail's spiteful character assassination of his father Ralph Miliband - and thus, by inference, Ed himself - the leader of the opposition has failed to enchant the hearts and minds of the British people. Indeed, even though Labour still maintain a strong four point lead in the polls consistently, their leader does not meet with similar public approval. In fact, despite this goring from the right-leaning paper Red Ed, whilst avoiding getting ketchup on his shirt doesn't seem to have much blood in his eyes, or fire in his belly.
After the verdict on the Prime Minister's former Director of Communications, Andy Coulson, Wednesday's Prime Minister's Questions was surely the perfect opportunity for Miliband to skewer his opponent upon an interrogator's spike and watch him squirm. Instead, Miliband, while admirably criticising the Prime Minister's appointment of the now convicted Coulson, did little to make much of the potential political mincemeat of Mr. Cameron that opportunity afforded. One almost wished that we had watched the much loved and recently departed Grand Inquisitor, Jeremy Paxman - or indeed the man some have touted as his spiritual successor, James O'Brien of LBC - take up arms and man the offensive against the big Dave. Once, twice, three times Miliband led the charge against Cameron over the lack of vetting and following of procedure in regards to Mr Coulson's employment, but it was really rather feeble. This, like much of Miliband's rather lacklustre leadership, was all too easily batted away by the readily raised defence of the 'shield of Leveson'.
Unfortunately, this rather meekly led attack is all too characteristic of Miliband's overall time in leadership. Lacking in definite policy, clarity and now appearing to have alienated many Labour supporters, the North London leftie hasn't achieved much in opposition other than having promised not to be too similar to the two coalition parties across the bench. Honestly, sometimes PMQs in the last three years has felt like watching David Cameron being beaten over the head with a soggy newspaper. The opinions are there, but even they seem a bit wishy-washy, and the pugilistic spirit of the weekly occasion when the two leaders are pitted against one another has yet to leave David Cameron cowering in the blue corner... Of course, it would be fantastic if we were to do away with such pugilism and the competitive hyper-masculine down-the-pub jeering which often makes parliament look more pantomimic than political, but for the time being it is the arena we have.
So, what's to be done?
The Labour camp have, in fairness done their best with the model they have. Miliband's character is built on an over-arching anti-austerity, anti-Bedroom Tax old Labour line. After his curious voice upgrade, Miliband has set about trying to cultivate a man of the people image. During some of the worst flooding the country has seen in living memory, he trooped out in wellies just like the rest of 'em as a show of solidarity with the people of Somerset. Unfortunately, despite his state education, this image of the everyday man doesn't sit all too comfortably with many, or certainly enough: Son of an economist-philosopher and a Human Rights activist, an Oxbridge graduate and living in a million pound house in a well-to-do North London suburb on a big salary doesn't really carry the same weight as someone like the recently deceased, albeit problematic working class hero, Bob Crow. It is a worrying problem that so many of our politicians and indeed leaders remain white, middle-class men from the South of England - this is said with the greatest sense of self-awareness. Many of the British Public find that hard to identify with, and whilst it is admirable that Ed Miliband wants to try and establish a fairer, juster society, for some it merely smacks of hypocrisy. This is not to say that it cannot work; Miliband's mentor and own hero, Tony Benn was one such man who won the love of so many Britons for his determined socialist principles and politics.
Rather than attempting to deceive the public, or try his hand at populist, personality politics, what Ed Miliband must do is work with what he has. His principles, should he stick to them, can be vote winners: Justice and a will to break down the ever growing social divides of inequality are more than just admirable; they are electable. Who doesn't want to see bankers and others on outrageously high salaries that far outstrip entire streets annual mortgage repayments sharing the nation's hardships? Who doesn't want to see the tax loopholes exploited by the rich firmly closed? Who doesn't want to see ludicrous rent prices not curbed to extortionate levels simply because a select and elite few can afford to pay them? And, similarly, who does not want to see the rights of desperate tenants finally trump those of avaricious wealthy landlords and estate agents? In the end, we are all in this together, and it's time everyone started acting like it. If you have larger financial shoulders then you ought to be prepared to bear more of the burden.
Ed Miliband's supposed socialism might not extend to the renationalising of the railways, despite overwhelming public support, but it should, and I hope does extend to protection of the NHS, education and other public services, assets and industries from the pockets and boardrooms of wealthy individuals and greedy corporations. The ideas of justice, fairness and greater equality are a firm and electable platform upon which to stand. Ed Miliband and his party would do well to remember that.