Ed Miliband is a trendsetter: Labour’s youngest leader since the Second World War, Labour’s first Jewish leader and Labour’s first unmarried leader. His age, ethnicity and living arrangements have all generated comment – or, in the case of the Daily Mail, a puritanical spasm.
But not his nationality, which is surprising, given that the Labour Party has elected its first English leader for quarter of a century and its first English leader to represent an English parliamentary constituency since Harold Wilson. “English Ed.” Does it matter? Should it matter?
For an answer, it’s worth looking at some recent history. Gordon Brown wasn’t concerned about his nationality. He was totally paranoid about it.
I remember discussing a list of major policy priorities with a Brownite advisor just before the transition from Tony Blair. What, I asked, had the incoming Prime Minister identified as the key issues. “An English parliament”,
was the response. “You’re joking”, I said.
“No. Gordon thinks David Cameron is going to outflank us on it. It’ll be a major issue at the election.”
He didn’t. And it wasn’t.
“Gordon was obsessed”, recalls one former Government advisor. “He used to ring up the Department for Culture, Media and Sport every month demanding they sort out some photo call or press stunt with the England football team. He was convinced that, if he got enough photos of him next to Wayne Rooney, people would think he was English”.
Some of Brown’s efforts to downplay his Scottishness were comical, such as his fond remembrance of watching Paul Gascoigne score for England against Scotland in the 1996 European Championship. Other forays into nationalistic terrain were less amusing. His infamous boast of “British jobs for British workers” was a more toxic strand of the same strategy.
In fairness to Gordon Brown, his paranoia didn’t mean that people weren’t out to get him – quite the opposite. His Scottish origins were constantly deployed for negative effect by his enemies. “Dour Scot Gordon Brown” gained such wide currency that one frustrated aide said his boss was considering adopting “DSGB” as his initials.
Tony Blair also made a conscious, although less overt, attempt to conceal his Scottish origins. Before the 1997 general election, Robin Cook caused a mild kerfuffle by agreeing that the Shadow Cabinet was unbalanced in favour of the Scots. Unwisely, he included Blair among their number, resulting in an immediate call to his advisor. “Why’s Robin going round saying Tony is Scottish”. “Er, because he is?” “We know he is. But we don’t want everyone finding out”, came the frosty reply.
Sensitivity over the Labour leaders’ nationality can be traced back to Neil Kinnock’s “Welsh windbag” moniker. Some claim that Kinnock’s Welshness was a significant factor in Labour’s defeat at both the 1987 and 1992 elections. Others think a legacy of unilateralism in nuclear disarmament and a pledge to end the cap on National Insurance contributions may also have had something to do with it. These may be moot points now, but an impression formed that the nationality of political leaders matters.
And that view is about gain significant currency. Patrick Diamond and Giles Radice have just published Southern Discomfort Again, an analysis of the political cleansing of Labour from southern England at the 2010 general election. It makes for sober reading. In the south-east, south-west and eastern regions, Labour won only 10 out of 197 seats. In the south of England and the Midlands as a whole, Labour now holds only 49 out of 302 seats.
The Diamond and Radice study does not focus directly on nationality and specifically that of the Labour Party leader. But its examination of the defeat touches on a number of related themes: the backlash on immigration backlash, empathy for “typical voter” Gillian Duffy, a loss of identity and an inability to relate to Gordon Brown.
These issues will find echoes on the left, as well as the right. “We have a Welsh Labour, we have a Scottish Labour, we don’t have an English Labour”, Jon Cruddas pointed out at a recent Fabian Society meeting entitled “Can Labour Speak To England?” He said the party is facing “a distinctly English crisis – that Labour must now respond to by learning from our own comparative history. We are obliged to re-anchor Labour in the ordinary, mainstream culture of the country.”
So we are likely to be hearing quite a bit from “ English Ed” over the next few months. It will be his unique brand of Englishness. He will not arrive at Prime Minister’s Questions draped in a St George’s flag and challenge the Tory benches to come and have a go if they think they’re hard enough – well, at least not unless the opinion polls get really bad.
But we can expect much talk of diversity, tolerance and typical English fair play. If patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel, benign nationalism is the first destination of the Labour politician seeking an answer to his party’s painful predicament.
Coleen Rooney has been warned. Her husband may well again find himself in the company of unscrupulous hangers-on. People are going to try to get their hands his Englishness.
Ed Miliband is Labour’s first English leader for a quarter of a century. And he’s probably going to start bragging about it.