Francis Beckett

Odd, I know, to be ranking today’s widely mocked Labour leader with the most successful Labour Prime Minister ever.  I suggested similarities during a podcast with former Blair spin doctor Lance Price, who promised me dinner at a restaurant of my choice if Labour under Miliband gets a 1945-size majority. 

But when Attlee was elected Labour leader in 1935, many people said that such an uncharismatic, ordinary-sounding little man could never be Prime Minister.  He was a temporary stopgap, they said, until the Party could agree on a proper leader.  “And a little mouse shall lead them” confided a bitterly disappointed Hugh Dalton to his diary that night.


Attlee was elected partly because the front runner, Herbert Morrison, was seen to be too close to Ramsay Macdonald, the good-looking, charismatic Labour leader with a beautiful voice, beloved of duchesses, who was widely perceived to have dumped all Labour’s principles even before he dumped the Labour Party itself – just as David Miliband lost because he was perceived as being too close to Tony Blair. Attlee was elected, not just because he distanced himself from the Macdonald years, but also because personally he was the opposite of Macdonald, as Miliband is the opposite of Blair.

For years after that, Morrison and his friends muttered that Attlee had to be dumped because he just did not look or sound Prime Ministerial. It was true that he had no talent for public speaking. Jack Jones - who admired Attlee – told me of a time when he heard Attlee say from a public platform: “The Prime Minister says he wants more time.  If I was the judge, he’d get it.”  Jones said: “He told it so badly that no one realised he’d made a joke.”  Attlee sounded a bit like a provincial bank manager. But he grew to be trusted.

Attlee’s great strength was his certainty, his ruthless self-belief.  He had a mind like a steel trap.  When Britain had a war-ravaged economy and needed a vast American loan just to stay afloat, Attlee introduced a full-blooded welfare state while Morrison and others were urging caution. His cabinet meetings were short and to the point, and they reached decisions.  He was ruthless with ministers.  He once reduced Fuel Minister Emanuel Shinwell to tears, and when he fired another Minister and the man asked him why, Attlee replied simply: “Not up to it.”

In the short time he’s had, Ed Miliband has shown that quality twice. First, he made the decision to run against his older brother, who was the front runner, knowing that if he succeeded, he would destroy, almost certainly for good, the lifetime ambition of a brother he loved – and would probably destroy their relationship (as he has, according to the excellent biography by Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre.) 

Second, his attack on the Murdoch empire and his call for its breakup, to the horror of many of his front bench and while the condemnations from David Cameron and Nick Clegg were still the minimum they could get away with, was clear and brave and decisive.  Ever since Tony Blair went to pay homage at the court of King Rupert, it’s been accepted wisdom that no one can become Prime Minister in Britain if Murdoch is determined that they shouldn’t.  Look what happened to Neil Kinnock, they say, and they’re right: when the Sun boasted that its coverage had deprived Kinnock of the premiership, they were only stating the truth. I’m told that Murdoch sent the boys round to tell young Ed to watch his step. 

Miliband gambled that the Murdoch empire will never be able to do that again.   You don’t have to be a Labour supporter to hope that’s true.  And by gambling that it’s true, Miliband has made it more likely that it will be true.

I’ve got advice and a prediction.  My advice is: go on being yourself, Ed.  You’re not a Tony Blair or a Ramsay Macdonald, you don’t have the easy charm, the good looks, the superficiality. Ignore the siren voices that tell you that you have to turn yourself into something different. Labour’s spin doctors have a bad record in this respect – they told Neil Kinnock he had to start sounding “prime ministerial” and if only he hadn’t listened, he might have been Prime Minister. If you go on being who you are, the country will learn to trust you. 

My prediction is this.  I think Lance Price will be buying me dinner.