Why David Miliband is right to say Labour could win the election

In the Speaker's Lecture, former foreign secretary says: "Ed can be in Downing Street".

David Miliband's declaration that "In 2015 Labour can win the general election and Ed can be in Downing Street", the warmest endorsement he has delivered of his brother's leadership, is a reminder of how much the political mood has changed in recent months. Labour's sustained poll lead - the latest YouGov poll puts them 10 points ahead of the Conservatives - has forced the Tories to confront what they previously thought unthinkable: that Ed Miliband could become Prime Minister.

When Miliband became Labour leader in September 2010, "unelectable" was the most common epithet applied to him by the right. This was partly due to history. As David noted in his speech last night - Ministers and Politics in a Time of Crisis - Britain's recent experience of long-lived governments (18 years for the Tories, 13 years for Labour) led to a casual assumption among the media that the Tories were destined for a second term:

Younger listeners may not know this, but governments can actually lose elections before they win three in a row. In the 1970s there were four prime ministers and five governments in nine years. For me and my party, this is great news. In 2015 Labour can win the general election and Ed can be in Downing Street.

Miliband is right. We could be heading for a period of 70s-style revolving door government.

Poll leads, of course, can come and go. In February 1981, Michael Foot led Margaret Thatcher by 16 points. Yet aided by the "Falklands bounce", the Tories went on to win a majority of 144 seats in 1983. But the assumption that Labour was doomed to a lengthy spell in opposition was always at odds with psephological reality. At the 2010 election, the party may have recorded its second lowest share of the vote since 1918 (29 per cent) but, owing to the vagaries of the British electoral system, it still emerged with 258 MPs, far more than the Tories had in 1997 (165 MPs), 2001 (166 MPs) and 2005 (198 MPs). For Miliband, the road to a majority is far shorter than it was for Cameron.

One should add that while the Tories' planned boundary changes will reduce Labour's advantage, they will not eliminate it. Even after the changes are implemented, the Tories will need a lead of seven points on a uniform swing to win a majority (compared to one of 11 points at present), while Labour will need a lead of just four. The reason Labour retains its electoral advantage is that the electoral bias towards the party owes more to differential turnout (fewer people tend to vote in Labour constituencies) and regional factors (the Tory vote is poorly distributed) than it does to unequal constituencies (the coalition plans to fix constituency sizes at around 76,000 voters).

Another factor in Miliband's favour is Labour's status as the least toxic party. While just 58 per cent of the electorate would consider voting for the Tories, 70 per cent would be prepared to back Labour. Or, to put it another way, just 30 per cent would “never” choose Labour compared with 36 per cent for the Lib Dems and 42 per cent for the Tories. Thus, it is Labour that has the greatest potential to expand its support.

Finally, as Mehdi noted in a recent column on this subject, Cameron will need to defy recent history to achieve a majority. To win the election, the PM needs to significantly increase the Tories' vote share from the 36 per cent they polled at the last election. Yet "not since 1974 has an incumbent prime minister pushed up his party's share of the vote. It was beyond the ability of Margaret Thatcher (in 1983 and 1987) and Tony Blair (2001 and 2005)". Some Tories have already recognised that Cameron will struggle to win a majority (see Tim Montgomerie's recent pieces on the subject), it is time the rest of the party did the same.

David Miliband: "In 2015 Labour can win the general election and Ed can be in Downing Street." Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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How the Brexit referendum has infantilised British politics

Politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. 

Ancient Greece is the cradle of modern Europe.  From its primordial soup emerged so much of our culture, our language and our politics. Of the three, it seems to be the politics that has made the least progress over the centuries. In fact, if you dropped an Athenian into the middle of politics in the UK today, they would find themselves right at home. This is not because of the direct democracy, the demagogues or the xenophobia, though all are worryingly familiar, but because of the style of the debate itself.

To understand politics in ancient Greece you have to grasp that they had no concept of ‘the truth’. This is not to say that they were liars, simply that the framework by which we judge credibility was not one they would have recognised. The myths and legends that dominated their discourse were neither thought of as being ‘true’ or ‘made-up’, they simply were, and the fact of their being known allowed them to be used as reference points for debate and argument.

Modern politics seems to be sliding back towards this infant state, and nothing embodies this more than the childish slanging match that passes for an EU referendum debate. In the past six years the UK has had three great exercises of direct democracy and it is safe to say none of the campaigns have added a great deal to sum of human enlightenment. Who remembers the claims that babies would die as a result of the special voting machines needed to conduct AV elections? But the EU referendum has taken this to new extremes. The In campaign are executing what is a fairly predictable strategy, the kind of thing that is normal fare in politics these days. Dossiers of doomsday scenarios. Experts wheeled out. Statistics embellished to dazzle the public. One can question the exact accuracy, but at least you feel they operate within certain parameters of veracity.

What is happening on the Out side, in contrast, is the collective nervous breakdown of a large section of the political establishment. Just this week we have had Penny Mordaunt, a government minister, flat-out denying the UK’s right to veto new accessions to the EU. We have seen the fiercely independent Institute for Fiscal Studies denounced as a propaganda arm for Brussels. Most bizarrely, Boris Johnson even tried to claim that the EU had banned bananas from being sold in bunches larger than three, something that nobody who has actually visited a shop in the UK could possibly believe. These kind of claims stretch our political discourse way beyond the crudely drawn boundaries of factual accuracy that normally constrain what politicians can do and say. Surely the people peddling these myths can never be taken seriously again?

But they will. You just watch as Johnson, Mordaunt and the rest slide effortlessly back into public life. Instead of being ridiculed for their unhinged statements, they will be rewarded with plush offices and ministerial cars. Journalists will continue to hang on every word they say. Their views will be published in newspapers, their faces will flit ceaselessly across our TV screens. Johnson is even touted as a plausible future leader of our country, possibly before the year is out. A man who over his meandering career seems to have held every possible opinion on any topic you care to name. Or rather, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the character we call Boris has no opinions at all, simply interests. The public, who have scant regard for a political class they believe to be untrustworthy, seem to have taken a shine to a man who is perhaps the most fundamentally dishonest of Westminster’s denizens.

What does all this say about the state of our politics? If it is true that we are seeing the advent of ‘post-truth’ politics, as some have argued, then it has grown out of the corrosive relationship between politicians and the public. It is both a great irony and a great tragedy that the very fact that people distrust all politicians is what has permitted the most opportunistic to peddle more and more outlandish claims. Political discourse has ceased to be a rational debate with agreed parameters and, like the ancient Greeks, more resembles a series of competing myths. Claims are assessed not by their accuracy but by their place in the grand narrative which is politics.

But the truth matters. For the ancients it was the historian Thucydides who shifted the dial decisively in favour of fact over fiction. In writing his Histories he decided that he wanted to know what actually happened, not just what made a good story. In a similar vein British politics needs to take a step back towards the real world. Broadcasters launching fact-checkers are a good start, but we need to up the level of scrutiny on political claims and those who make them. At times it feels like the press operate as a kind of counterweight to Game of Thrones author George RR Martin, going easy on much-loved characters for fear of upsetting the viewers.

But politicians like Boris are not characters in a fantasy show. If they aspire to high office then they must be held to high standards. If politics is the art of the possible, then political discourse is the art of saying what you can get away with. Until there are consequences for the worst offenders, the age of post-truth politics will continue suck the life from our public debate.