Ed Miliband launches opposition shake-up

Labour's leader has come out fighting after a first year of criticism. He's the man whose job it is to hold the Government to account. So how is Ed Miliband doing?

He's 'a natural gamma male,' according to one parliamentary sketchwriter: a gangly figure who struggles to give the impression of strong leadership after a career spent in the shadow of his older brother David.

But, just over a year into his leadership of the Labour Party, even this harsh critic says Ed Miliband is starting to get in touch with his 'inner alpha,' by scoring points against Prime Minister David Cameron in the House of Commons.

And, over the weekend, he began to assert his authority, proposing a Labour shake-up designed to put the party back in touch with the voters and – if he can – weaken the historic power of the trades-union movement.

Mr Miliband won the Labour leadership, narrowly defeating his brother, largely because he secured the backing of the big unions, whose members voted for him in blocks. They still control around 50% of decision-making at the annual Labour Party Conference, forcing the leadership into 'late-night deals' that Mr Miliband now says he wants to end. And he is refusing to back this week's strike by three quarters of a million teachers, lecturers and civil servants.

This is a risky stance: the unions are the overwhelming source of funding for Labour. But after shocking people by his last-minute decision to stand against his brother and win – a move that left his family reeling and astonished the upper echelons of his Party – Miliband is determined to show his mettle.

His supporters say anyone ruthless enough to defeat David has the necessary grit to make sure Labour only spends one Parliament out of power. His detractors say he has been weak and uninspiring so far (his approval ratings in opinion polls are behind even those of the unpopular Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg). They say thwarting his older brother's campaign for the Labour leadership amounted to fratricide.

Now he has decided to stop apologising for the previous Labour Government, in which he was an advisor and later a cabinet minister, and is asking the public to help write a new set of policies onto his agenda.

Blank paper

Describing this fresh start as 'a blank piece of paper' got him into trouble – it made Labour sound as if it had nothing to offer. Many opponents of the current Coalition government want Miliband to offer a strong, clear vision of what his policies are and where his party is headed.

But Mr Miliband hopes his openness to new policies is a chance for genuine people power. At the weekend, he said, 'my ambition is for Labour to be a cause not just a party, a mission not just a programme, a movement not just a government.' Will the rest of us want to be part of it?

You Decide

  1. Do you want to be part of a mass political movement? Or does the idea leave you cold?
  2. Should an Official Opposition concentrate on criticising the Government or spend more time explaining their alternatives? If you can, discuss some examples.

Activities

  1. Write your own mini-manifesto for the next General Election. What are your priority policy proposals? What's your slogan? Who are your target voters?
  2. Conduct a role-play: one person is Leader of the Opposition, the other is a television or radio interviewer, trying to ask the tough questions. Get a third person to video it or write it up as a news report.

Some People Say...

“Someone who knifes his brother can't be trusted.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Why should we care whether he's any good at his job?
Strange as it may sound, when Miliband lands a blow on the Government he is doing it on behalf of the whole population, as well as to boost his own reputation and his political party's electoral prospects.
Why?
Because as Leader of the Her Majesty's Official Opposition – as it is formally known – he performs an important role in British democracy: he has to examine and criticise theincumbent Government, and lead a team that voters can feel is 'a government in waiting'. Of course some opposition leaders never make it into Downing Street.
How come?
Because in opposition it's sometimes too easy to please your own supporters, without wooing enough people to win a General Election.

Word Watch

Fratricide
One brother killing another, like Cain and Abel in the Bible.
Incumbent
The person or people who currently occupy a position.
Gamma and alpha male
Alpha males are dominant leader types, a jargon term borrowed from the animal world, where one male rules a social group. A gamma is a much lower ranking animal.

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