Miliband has finally achieved total command – but will Blue Ed or Brown Ed take the spoils?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

There should be a word for the mixed emotions that working parents feel when their children’s teachers go on strike. Moral support for aggrieved educators clashes with irritation at the need for emergency childcare. What do you call solidarity softened by resentment? Semisolidarity?

One person who will be unperturbed by the pedagogic walkout on 17 October is Michael Gove. The Education Secretary is on a mission to smash what he sees as a reactionary educational establishment that protects its own privileges more rigorously than it pursues children’s enlightenment. Howls of pain from the NUT are his proof that the plan is working.

It doesn’t do the Tories any favours to alienate a profession that enjoys far more public sympathy than politicians do. At the same time, making parents feel like collateral damage in someone else’s war isn’t a winning strategy for teachers.

The big teaching unions are not formally affiliated to the Labour Party but that doesn’t stop Conservatives trying to make industrial action the opposition’s problem. Tories don’t need much of a pretext to call Ed Miliband a born appeaser of Trotskyite militants. Labour can truthfully deny all responsibility for strikes yet still be discomfited by them.

It is an awkward fact that unions do not inspire a comradeship outside the club of their own members. It is rational for public sector workers to fight against paltry pay rises and to defend their pensions. It is less obvious why private-sector workers at the bottom of the heap whose employers give them no pay rise and no pension at all should cheer them on.

This fracturing of labour solidarity is a crisis for the left. Austerity has not mobilised the masses against a government of capitalist oppressors. It has not galvanised the nation with a noble sense of collective endeavour. The evidence suggests it has made us more jealous in guarding what we have and likelier to suspect others of taking more than their fair share. Across a range of domestic and foreign policies, Labour is struggling to adapt to the mean spirit of the times. Activists cherish a welfare system that subsidises people who earn little or nothing with cash transfers from their neighbours. Public consent for that model is vanishing. The left venerates the anti-racist tradition of refusing to blame foreigners for shortages of jobs and homes. That creed is no match for fearmongering parables of an island nation being overrun. Miliband is an instinctive believer in the founding ideal of the European Union – that the continent’s destructive nationalisms dissolve in cross-border trade. Ukip’s depiction of Brussels as an occupying power has more popular credence.

It would be less of a problem for Labour if it were on the wrong side of public opinion on just one of those issues. Combine them and it looks like swimming against a cultural torrent. Yet in recent weeks Miliband’s entourage has been possessed by new optimism. The Labour leader believes his crusade to tackle the rising cost of living has disoriented David Cameron. He calculates that the Conservatives’ allergy to market intervention leaves the Prime Minister bereft of effective responses.

Meanwhile, the shadow cabinet reshuffle has allowed Labour to relaunch existing policy positions into a more receptive media climate. Rachel Reeves, the shadow work and pensions secretary, declared that Labour would be “tough but fair” on welfare, which is what Liam Byrne had been trying to say. Tristram Hunt, the shadow education secretary, made the same compromise on free schools that Stephen Twigg made back in June (Labour would allow them only in needy areas and would call them something else).The interventions only felt new because the messengers were received as authorised Milibandites and not, as their predecessors had been caricatured, as Blairite provocateurs.

Labour MPs are now watching to see whether new confidence in the leader’s office translates into a more imaginative approach to politics or just tighter control. Seasoned Miliband watchers are familiar with the phenomenon of his two competing political personas. There is the insurgent idealist, the dabbler in “Blue Labour” philosophy that rejects the bureaucratic state as a mechanism for effecting social change. Blue Ed challenges orthodoxies and takes risks. Then there is the Westminster apparatchik who learned politics by watching Gordon Brown sneak up on power. Brown Ed avoids party confrontations and advances in tactical increments.

Blue Ed grasps that the hollowing out of political solidarity in Britain is an existential challenge to the left. He recognises that Labour needs to look and sound like a very different party if it is to turn his “one nation” politics into a genuine antidote to social division. Brown Ed can see a way to eke out the dregs of the old solidarity – public sector loyalists and visceral Tory-haters whose voices can be amplified by a dysfunctional voting system – to smuggle himself into No 10. Advocates of each path have access to Miliband’s ear. Most shadow cabinet ministers profess ignorance of what really goes on in the leader’s office, although they recognise that there is a battle between imagination and caution for possession of Labour’s future.

The moment when a leader asserts his strength is also the point when he is most exposed. After three years of managing divisions and battling disloyalty – some of it real, much of it imagined – Miliband has achieved total command. There is no obstacle to boldness. There is nothing to stop him being as fearless as his friends have always said he can be, which is what the times demand. Caution can be banished. But will it?

We are about to discover whether Miliband is, as he believes, the first Labour leader of a new era or, as his critics suspect, the last leader of the era now ending.

Ed Miliband at the Labour conference in Brighton last month. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Do you see yourself as British or English? The answer could help define modern politics

The rise of English identity has left a glaring space in politics for an English nationalist party. Who is going to fill it?

Political scientists call it the “Moreno question”. In the 1980s, the Spanish academic Luis Moreno Fernández came up with a test for identity, which was originally applied to gauge interest in Catalan independence. In its English incarnation, it asks voters to grade themselves from “I feel more British than English” to “I feel more English than British”. Unsurprisingly, Ukip does best among those who describe themselves as “English, not British”, while Labour’s vote rises the more people see themselves as British. In the biggest group – the 47 per cent who see themselves as equally English and British – the Tories lead.

The Moreno question helps us make sense of three interlinking trends in modern politics. First, the stark fact that in the 2015 election, a different party won in each nation of the United Kingdom: Labour in Wales, the SNP in Scotland, the Tories in England and the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland. Second, Ukip’s lack of success north of the border: the Herald reported in July that Ukip’s only elected representative in the country, David Coburn MEP, had been forced to take on the role of treasurer at his local branch in Fife because it has so few members. Third, Labour’s declining performance in its historic northern heartlands. Many voters there want a party with a distinctively English flavour and don’t feel that Labour is it.

Devolution has had many unexpected consequences, but the rise of an English identity is one of the least explored. Because of its demographic dominance, mainstream politicians have long argued that it would be unfair to give England its own parliament. Labour is particularly resistant to the idea because it would magnify the Conservatives’ power. As it is, the principle of “English votes for English laws” will exclude the SNP and Plaid Cymru from the grand committee-stage hearings on grammar schools, because education is a devolved matter.

However, the last general election showed that there’s a problem with English voters feeling ignored. In Worcester, the Tory MP Robin Walker told me in April 2015 that arguments about the SNP holding Labour to ransom cut through on the doorstep. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying, ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us,’” he said. Many English voters felt that the SNP would be a successful lobby group at Westminster for Scotland’s interests. Where was their equivalent?

For John Denham, the former Labour MP who now leads the Centre for English Identity and Politics at the University of Winchester, the same dynamic applied this summer in the EU referendum campaign. “Scotland got ‘Scotland Stronger in Europe’,” he tells me. “England had to put up with ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’. That was an elite campaign run by people who think Britain and England are the same thing.”

Once again, the Moreno question helps us understand a fundamental divide among English voters. Denham says that 80 per cent of people who defined themselves as “English only” voted Leave, while 80 per cent of those who called themselves “British only” voted Remain.

Denham thinks that this presents an enormous challenge for Labour in northern seats where Ukip is in second place, given that its intellectuals and leading politicians feel so squeamish about Englishness. “If Labour continues as a cosmopolitan, liberal party that doesn’t want anything to do with the politics of identity,” he warns, “it won’t reach those voters.”

Other politicians worry that if Labour doesn’t occupy this space, another party will. “As nationalists go, the SNP is pretty good,” a senior left-wing politician told me recently. “An English nationalist party could be something altogether more nasty.”

In this light, the election of Diane James as the leader of Ukip looks like a rare stroke of luck for Labour. She is a southerner, educated at Rochester Grammar School, and an MEP for south-east England. Although she is polished and professional – albeit prone to outbursts of admiration for Vladimir Putin – she seems unlikely to appeal on an emotional level to working-class white voters in the north, where the greatest potential for an English nationalist party lies. Thanks to Ukip’s Caligulan internal politics, the deputy leader, Paul Nuttall (from Bootle), did not stand and the charismatic Steven Woolfe (from Burnage) was excluded from the race after the party’s executive committee ruled that he had submitted his nomination papers 17 minutes after the deadline. (Another potential candidate, Suzanne Evans, was suspended by the party, and pretty much everyone else in Ukip seems to hate its only MP, Douglas Carswell.)

If not Labour, or Ukip, perhaps the Conservatives? Theresa May’s rebranding of the party, complete with articles on bringing back grammar schools in the Daily Mail, shows that she is pitching for Ukip-leaners. “In terms of language and biography, she has a better understanding of that struggling, socially conservative, English nationalist voter than Cameron did,” says Robert Ford, a professor of political science at Manchester University and co-author of Revolt on the Right. He believes that any party that thinks a simple economic message can sway these voters is underestimating the “emotive” nature of identity-based politics. “It’s no use going to Sunderland and saying, ‘We’re going to nationalise the trains,’ and thinking, ‘They’ll come back to us.’”

There is another option. A new party could be born, perhaps even out of the ashes of post-referendum Ukip: Arron Banks, its mega-donor, has said that he fancies the idea. With the right leader, nationalist sentiment could spread like wildfire among the “English, not British”. And, as Nigel Farage has shown, you don’t need to get elected to Westminster to have an effect.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times