Apart from agreeing that their leader has now proven himself one of the greatest orators since Cicero, another question upon which there would surely have been universal agreement at Labour conference would be ‘Obama or Romney?’. Yet despite the antipathy of the ‘People’s Party’ to all things Republican this week has seen an interesting parallel between Mr Miliband and Mr Romney.
Despite the rise of extremism in many troubled parts of Europe, it remains the case that elections are won in the middle ground. However, it is in the nature of political parties - something exacerbated by their shrinking base - that they contain a preponderance of hard liners and true believers. Every leader who wants to win power has therefore to somehow juggle the Party’s desire for ideological purity with their need to show the public, first, that they are moderate and, second, that when it comes to a choice they will put the needs of their country as a whole ahead of the aspirations of Party activists.
In this trade off a critical variable is the desire for, and likelihood of, electoral victory. So, in relation to the former, it took Labour four defeats and the Conservatives three before Party activists were willing to give their leader sufficient freedom of manoeuvre to appeal directly to the centre ground. But whatever the appetite to win, if a leader doesn’t look like he has much chance of victory he has less authority and fewer grounds upon which to force compromise on the Party.
As someone who sees a willingness to tackle Party prejudices not as only as a critical leadership attribute but vital to good government, I tend to agree with those commentators who give Ed Miliband’s speech a less than complete endorsement, despite its impressive delivery. Labour’s leader did a great job in inspiring his Party but he also left the door open for the Conservatives next week to say that while the Labour and LibDem leaders focussed on making their Parties feel good, they alone are willing to do the unpopular work necessary to make the country succeed.
But the electoral timetable provides a defence of Miliband’s approach. After all he has two more conferences and nearly three more years before the next election. He can reasonably argue that his Party is now so united and so in love with him that he has provided the best possible foundation to move on to the next and most difficult part of his process; gaining his Party’s agreement to an austerity manifesto. In making such an argument Miliband can point across the Atlantic.
Until his resounding success in Wednesday’s first Presidential debate Romney was repeatedly vacillating between what he needed to say to have a chance of winning and what the Republican party would allow him to say. The pressure from the Tea Party, and its fellow travellers, for ideological purity more than balanced the desire to win, especially as opinion polls showed winning to be unlikely. But on Wednesday Romney became a contender and within 48 hours he is signalling a move to the centre ground by apologising for the impression given by his disparaging comments about the 47% of Americans who don’t pay income tax.
Whatever one's preference for the outcome of the Presidential election, it would surely be much better for America if its election were a genuine debate about policy rather than a polarised slanging match. Similarly, it would probably a good thing if the next UK election is fought between credible alternatives (something which has been the exception rather than the norm over the last thirty years).
I doubt whether Ed and Mitt will be having a congratulatory ‘phone
conversation this weekend, but when it comes to their own leadership challenge, they might find they have surprising amount in common.