Most political commentators consider Ed Miliband a useless leader. In a narrow sense they are right. He is not very good at getting a positive press or eliciting the support of important outside voices in the media and the business community. Even small stories of no consequence have the potential to turn into minor nightmares for Mr Miliband. The latest of these is his education spokesman Tristram Hunt’s innocuous remark about nuns, transformed by a voracious press into a minor scandal.
Mr Miliband’s bacon sandwich is a far more damaging example of the same phenomenon. But let us take a step backwards and avert our eyes from day to day headlines and political manoeuvres.
Suddenly, Mr Miliband becomes a far more interesting, significant and distinctive figure. Most politicians allow themselves to be shaped by the landscape in which they operate. Only in appearance are they independent figures. In practice they abide by the pieties of the age in which they live. There are certain exceptions to this rule. Enoch Powell — but he never got anywhere. Margaret Thatcher — indisputably.
Like them, Ed Miliband has been his own person, forged his own course and actually been consistent. It is easy to identify four defining phases of his leadership in which he has challenged the underlying structures which govern Westminster conduct.
The first of these came nine months into his leadership, when he confronted the power of the Rupert Murdoch and challenged his bid for the remaining shares in BSkyB. Up to that point every single political leader from Margaret Thatcher on had wooed Murdoch and considered that his support was an essential route to political power.
There is no question that he was effective in changing the terms of trade. We do not need to resort to conjecture to demonstrate this, as we know that the Prime Minister sent a message to Rebekah Brooks, the chief executive of News International, in which he apologised for not being as loyal to her as she had been to him because ‘Ed Miliband had me on the run’.
Shortly afterwards, Mr Miliband made a well-judged speech on the abuse of corporate power. Once again he was defying the conventional wisdom, once again prevalent since the days of Margaret Thatcher, that the path to Downing Street involved flattering the business community.
Then came the vital parliamentary vote on Syria in 2013. According to the political textbook, oppositions always support government proposals on foreign policy, as Iain Duncan Smith did over Iraq. Mr Miliband’s action stopped Britain from making an armed intervention against the Assad regime, thus ending a very long period when British party leaders saw it as their duty to support American foreign policy objectives.
We now come to last year’s Commons vote on the recognition of the Palestinian state. It would have been easy and conventional for Ed Miliband to have allowed his MPs a free vote on such a controversial subject. Instead, he bravely led them into the ‘aye’ lobby. As over Syria, he won the decision in Parliament. He has not been given nearly enough credit for this. It is extremely unusual for opposition leaders to win votes in the House of Commons and Ed Miliband has made a habit of doing so.
Four brave interventions, each one taking on powerful establishment interests: the Murdoch newspaper empire, the corporate elite, the foreign policy establishment and pro-Israel lobby.
Most people will not agree with all these positions. But there is no doubting Mr Miliband’s integrity or his courage. And he needs these qualities because when you attack powerful interests they use all their influence to fight back.
The Murdoch press is now persecuting Mr Miliband. It is hyping up the attacks on him by big business, while mocking him in a personal way. Recently in a Westminster restaurant I saw a top News International henchman having lunch with David Cameron’s culture minister (and unofficial ambassador to the Murdoch press) Ed Vaizey. The alliance between the Murdoch press and the Tory party, knocked temporarily off course during the phone-hacking scandal, is back in business. Mr Murdoch has powerful allies in other newspaper groups who are desperate to avoid another brave commitment from Ed Miliband — his call for full implementation of Lord Justice Leveson’s recommendations on press regulation.
Meanwhile, corporate Britain is exacting its revenge on Mr Miliband because of his refusal to share the world view of big business. Donations to the Labour party have dried up, so much so that he will have difficulty financing his election campaign.
However, Tory coffers are full to bursting and much of this money is being used to vilify the Labour leader through questionable techniques of vile advertising imported from the United States.
Ed Miliband is paying his biggest price of all, however, for his bold stands on Syria and Palestine. Neoconservative opinion (still dominant in the Conservative party and the Blairite wing of Labour) dictates that Miliband should axiomatically have taken the side of Israel over Palestine and of armed intervention in the Syrian conflict.
The backlash hit him particularly hard because it split the Labour party. The allies of Tony Blair have struck back, with Blair himself having accidentally blurted out his doubts about Miliband to numerous journalists. It is notable that all the leading Blairite commentators in the media appear to support David Cameron over Ed Miliband.
During his four-year stint as Labour leader, Ed Miliband has shown courage and principle. His reward is to be trashed and ridiculed and he may yet be destroyed.
Opposition is an essential part of British public life. Oppositions have a duty to challenge government and to give the electorate a clear choice. Ed Miliband has done precisely this and yet he has been written off. Does this mean that no opposition dare offend the big vested interests that govern Britain? Is this really the politics we want?
But consider this: if Ed Miliband does become prime minister, he will have done so without owing anything to anybody.
Peter Oborne is an associate editor at The Spectator.