Henry G Manson’s Friday column
Perhaps the most enduring part of Ed Miliband’s conference speech 10 day ago wasn’t the energy policy he outlined, but his charge against David Cameron. The Prime Minister was “strong at standing up to the weak, but weak at standing up to the strong.” In that one sentence the Labour leader was able to neatly bundle everything anxiety about the Tories, from being too close to News International, siding with the richest earners to cut their income taxes for the richest and preventing a mansion tax (because Conservative donors wouldn’t stand for it) in contrast to imposing the ‘bedroom tax’, more rigorous demands on disabled people and the unemployed. It’s a device that can carry Labour a long way and make the most of Ed Miliband’s style and political position.
To seemingly assist the Labour leader in proving his point the following day it was revealed the Treasury was to take action to prevent bankers’ bonuses being capped at the equivalent of a year’s salary. Whatever the strengths or limitations of such a policy, it looked hideous and Labour need to draw much more attention to it. The Conservative response to Labour’s energy policy looked unsure with many Conservative MPs instinctively siding with the energy companies. This week we’ve seen a Conservative manifesto commitment to remove benefits away from under-25 year olds. Strong against the weak, weak against the strong.
In recent days Ed Miliband has challenged head on the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday over its unsavoury distortions of his father’s believe, a decision to make a pun out of his gravestone and the decision of such journalists to infiltrate a family memorial service to try and dig up dirt. New Labour’s historic fear of the Mail only underlined what a bold move challenging Dacre so publicly was. Tony Blair waited until the very end of his career before turning on the ‘feral’ press. This was a bold and decent move by Ed Miliband has rightly been cheered on by a growing crowd. However it was unconventional. It was not what political leaders, especially Labour leaders, are meant to do.
- What’s happening right now in politics is fascinating. The events of the last few weeks could prove pivotal to this parliament. Having been defined as ‘weak’ by Cameron and the Conservative Press, Ed Miliband has been able to adopt the role of David against a number of Goliaths and is turning it to his advantage.
Just as in the Book of Samuel when David threw off his cumbersome armour for an alternative approach, Ed Miliband is eschewing the political playbook of the last thirty years. It is by far his best chance of winning.
But David and Goliath is just a parable? Surely 99 times out of a 100 Goliath will win? That’s why Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay from four years ago ‘how David beats Goliath’ is compelling reading . (Incidentally the themes of this he has developed in a new book.) In this article Gladwell refers to Ian Arreguín-Toft’s analysis of war over the last two centuries showing that David beats Goliath more than most would think – and that underdogs can in fact adopt certain methods to become the favourite to win a military conflict.
Arreguín-Toft found that ‘Goliath’ forces won 71.5 per cent of the conflicts which was quite low given the imbalances that took place in many of the battles. However when underdogs chose an unconventional strategy the chance of a ‘David’ winning increased from 28.5% to 63.6%. ‘When underdogs choose not to play by Goliath’s rules, they win, Arreguín-Toft concluded, “even when everything we think we know about power says they shouldn’t.”’
Gladwell also draws an unorthodox approaches to basketball deploying similar principles. A number of key lines in the piece jumped out to me and could be describing modern British politics at this precise point in time:
‘It was as if there were a kind of conspiracy in the basketball world about the way the game ought to be played’
‘The price that the outsider pays for being so heedless of custom is, of course, the disapproval of the insider.’
‘Goliath does not simply dwarf David. He brings the full force of social convention against him; he has contempt for David.’
‘When the world has to play on Goliath’s terms, Goliath wins.’
‘When an underdog fought like David, he usually won. But most of the time underdogs didn’t fight like David.’
The fact that Ed Miliband is breaking convention is precisely why he is rebuked by Blairite journalists such as John Rentoul, former Blair speechwriter Philip Collins and blogger Dan Hodges as much as from Conservative opponents. He is ripping up everything they all know and inverting it. They will never understand or accept it and the better the Labour leader does, the more frustrated they will become.
One point that comes clear from Gladwell’s essay is that it’s not enough to be unconventional. Effort is more important than ability and Labour’s front bench need to work like dogs in the next 18 months. However they key point is this: Ed Miliband’s breaking of political convention is not a sign of some political indulgence or adopting comfortable positions as has been suggested by some in the right of the party or the right of the political establishment – it is breaking convention. It might feel like a bumpy ride at times, but it is the smartest and most sensible thing he can do to win the next election. And crucially, it is showing signs of working.