Ed Miliband addresses the Labour Party conference. Photo: Getty
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Leader: No one is winning in the race to 2015

There was little sense of optimism among the Labour conference delegates in Manchester.

The Labour party conference in Manchester felt unusually flat. This could perhaps be put down to the trauma and the aftermath of the Scotland referendum – although the result was a comfortable win for the No campaign, it still exposed the profound divisions in Britain.

Almost 45 per cent of the Scots who voted wanted independence. Deep, structural forces are cleaving our United Kingdom. Scottish nationalism, the Ukip insurgency in England and the general anti-politics mood are symptoms of the need not only for constitutional reform and a reconfigured Union but for far-reaching economic and social change.

Ed Miliband understands this but the independence referendum was a reminder of the chasm that exists between the Labour Party and its former core vote. Over a third of those who support Scottish Labour voted Yes. A majority of the young, poor and unemployed voted for independence. Ominously for Labour, these groups viewed Mr Miliband as merely another representative of the discredited Westminster elite. Yet loathing of Westminster is not a phenomenon specific to Scotland. The disconnect between MPs and the electorate is evident in the collapse of turnout at general elections, the decline in membership of the main parties (but not the SNP or Ukip) and the fracturing of the two-party system.

As a result, there is unusual uncertainty surrounding the general election next year. Labour strategists say that they know what it feels like to be on course to lose an election – as in 2010 or in the 1980s. And, as in 1997, 2001 or 2005, they also know what it feels like to be certain of victory. The election in May 2015 falls somewhere in between.

It all amounts to a toxic combination that would unsettle most leaders. However, it is to Mr Miliband’s credit that he is less prone to short-termism than many, reflecting what he has called his “intellectual self-confidence”. His mission – his “ten-year plan” – is nothing less than to reshape Britain’s political economy. “The deck is stacked. The game is rigged in favour of those who have all the power,” he said on 23 September. Altering the economic rules, in his eyes, is the route to tempering the forces of nationalism, in England and Scotland alike, and quelling the anti-politics mood.

Commendable as the vision is, problems persist. Mr Miliband, the ultimate Westminster insider, struggles to gain a hearing in the country at large. There is, too, a question of voice and vocabulary. Can he speak to Britain as well as for it? No wonder that several of the most animated discussions at the Labour conference focused on the lack of working-class MPs. Some of the policy announcements at the conference do not sit easily with the ambition of the Miliband project. Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, said that Labour would not borrow to invest in 2015/2016, tying himself to the mast of George Osborne’s approach. He also apologised for Labour not imposing transitional controls on immigrants from eastern Europe in 2004 – ignoring that a comprehensive analysis last year found that immigrants from the European Economic Area since 2000 contributed 34 per cent more in taxes than they received from the state.

Mr Miliband’s speech was not nearly as well received as those he delivered in 2012 and 2013. In many ways, it was notable for what it did not say. The rhetorical slogan “One Nation” has been quietly dropped. Similarly, he neglected, or forgot, to mention the deficit, even if a section about it was included in the transcript of the speech.

With its banner slogan of “Together”, the Manchester speech represented the culmination of Mr Miliband’s four-year intellectual journey as leader. A clear thread links his much-mocked “predators and producers” speech in Liverpool in 2011 with his desire to recalibrate Britain’s political economy today. His ambition and his reforming instincts are unquestionable. He is a determined and ethical leader.

But he should beware: there was little sense of optimism among the delegates in Manchester. They like and admire their leader but are worried he is failing to connect with the wider electorate. They feel they are moving inexorably towards a hung parliament, with all the uncertainty that would bring. Labour does not yet feel like a party preparing for power. The one consolation is that Labour is united, unlike the Conservatives, who are divided and crisis-stricken – and who have, in the form of the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, an enemy from within their own family intent on tearing them apart. 

This article first appeared in the 24 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The cult of Boris

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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