Ed's hit himself with a hammer. Why is he surprised it hurts?

Miliband is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where the centre ground is.

Ed Miliband said before he arrived in Liverpool he wanted to re-write the political rulebook. Yesterday, he succeeded.

The rules for party conference speeches go something like this. The leader arrives. It is billed either as "make or break" if they are under pressure, or "the most important speech of their life" if they are on the verge of political breakthrough. In Ed's case I think we can safely put that breakthrough stuff aside for a moment.

Prior to the great address there are mutterings of discontent. Noises off that hint at dark deeds if the becalmed or embattled leader does not deliver. Then he rises. A self deprecating joke. Thanks to the spouse. A plea to "get to work" or "down to business".

Forty minutes later the world has turned. Conference is on it's feet, the critics silenced. For one brief moment the mists clear and our troubled politician again catches a glimpse of the sunlit uplands.

If only. There are no sunny uplands on Ed Miliband's horizon today. "It was obvious he was attempting to move his party away from the territory on which Tony Blair fought elections", said the Times, "It was also the territory on which Mr Blair won elections. And Mr Miliband may have moved just a little farther from that too". "Ed Miliband's shift to the left is a gift for the Tories", said Ben Brogan in the Telegraph.

This morning Labour's leader should have been basking in the plaudits. Instead he was roaming the TV and radio studios in a desperate attempt at damage limitation. "I'm not anti-business" he said over and over. His party wasn't lurching to the left but "firmly in the middle ground of politics".

Fine. But what exactly did Ed Miliband expect? What reaction was he looking for to a speech from a Labour leader that divided the nation into "producers" and "predators", attacked '"bad" businesses and "consensus" politics, declared war on "vested interests", and announced to loud cheers he was nothing like a man who had secured three successive electoral mandates from the British people.

"I genuinely don't understand", said one shadow cabinet source this morning, "why give a speech like that and then get cross when it gets written up that way". Quite. Watching Ed Miliband today has been like watching someone pick up a hammer, hit themselves in the head and then cry out in surprise, "Oh my god, that hurt me!".

To be fair, some of Ed Miliband's supporters are realistic about the implications of the strategy they're adopting. "If you want to win an election in one term you have to take risks", one insider said yesterday, "a safety first approach just won't cut it". There is also some relief amongst his team that the 'no definition, no strategy' monkey he's been carrying around for the past year has finally been prised from his back, "I don't think Ed will be too unhappy if the interpretation is he's found direction, even if there's some criticism of what that direction is", said one source.

But there's removing a monkey from your back, and there's burning it off with a flamethrower. Yesterday Ed Miliband chose to do the latter, and the general impression of a man who has decided to march his party off to the left is toxic.

It also underlines one of the central problems of his leadership. That is that whilst Ed Miliband understands the need to occupy the middle ground of politics, he is fundamentally wrong in his perception of where it is.

If he took the time to skim through that political rulebook he is so intent on shredding he would find on page one, paragraph one the following; "During times of recession and economic hardship the electorate becomes more conservative".

When Ed Miliband says that since the glory years of New Labour the centre of gravity of British politics has shifted, he's right. But it hasn't moved towards the Labour party, but away from it.

Yes people dislike the bankers. But what they dislike was their profligacy, and their reaction is a demand for greater fiscal responsibility and prudence. People are struggling financially. Which means they have even less time for their fellow citizens who try to milk the benefits system or do their shopping through a smashed store-front window.

At times yesterday Ed Miliband tried to acknowledge that. But those nods and winks were lost within his overall narrative. People yearning for stability will not embrace a leader who tells them his leadership will involve, "taking risks". People with a longing for security will not readily turn towards someone who believes "nobody ever changed things on the basis of consensus".

Ed Miliband has decided to do things his own way; be his own man. There is, he said, nothing to be gained from, "wanting to be liked". Judging by the reaction to his speech, perhaps that's just as well.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.