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

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Commons Confidential: Fearing the Wigan warrior

An electoral clash, select committee elections as speed dating, and Ed Miliband’s political convalescence.

Members of Labour’s disconsolate majority, sitting in tight knots in the tearoom as the MP with the best maths skills calculates who will survive and who will die, based on the latest bad poll, observe that Jeremy Corbyn has never been so loyal to the party leadership. The past 13 months, one told me, have been the Islington rebel’s longest spell without voting against Labour. The MP was contradicted by a colleague who argued that, in voting against Trident renewal, Corbyn had defied party policy. There is Labour chatter that an early general election would be a mercy killing if it put the party out of its misery and removed Corbyn next year. In 2020, it is judged, defeat will be inevitable.

The next London mayoral contest is scheduled for the same date as a 2020 election: 7 May. Sadiq Khan’s people whisper that when they mentioned the clash to ministers, they were assured it won’t happen. They are uncertain whether this indicates that the mayoral contest will be moved, or that there will be an early general election. Intriguing.

An unguarded retort from the peer Jim O’Neill seems to confirm that a dispute over the so-called Northern Powerhouse triggered his walkout from the Treasury last month. O’Neill, a fanboy of George Osborne and a former Goldman Sachs chief economist, gave no reason when he quit Theresa May’s government and resigned the Tory whip in the Lords. He joined the dots publicly when the Resolution Foundation’s director, Torsten Bell, queried the northern project. “Are you related to the PM?” shot back the Mancunian O’Neill. It’s the way he tells ’em.

Talk has quietened in Westminster Labour ranks of a formal challenge to Corbyn since this year’s attempt backfired, but the Tories fear Lisa Nandy, should the leader fall under a solar-powered ecotruck selling recycled organic knitwear.

The Wigan warrior is enjoying favourable reviews for her forensic examination of the troubled inquiry into historic child sex abuse. After Nandy put May on the spot, the Tory three-piece suit Alec Shelbrooke was overheard muttering: “I hope she never runs for leader.” Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan, the Thelma and Louise of Tory opposition to Mayhem, were observed nodding in agreement.

Select committee elections are like speed dating. “Who are you?” inquired Labour’s Kevan Jones (Granite Central)of a stranger seeking his vote. She explained that she was Victoria Borwick, the Tory MP for Kensington, but that didn’t help. “This is the first time you’ve spoken to me,” Jones continued, “so the answer’s no.” The aloof Borwick lost, by the way.

Ed Miliband is joining Labour’s relaunched Tribune Group of MPs to continue his political convalescence. Next stop: the shadow cabinet?

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage