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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.