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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Is defeat in Stoke the beginning of the end for Paul Nuttall?

The Ukip leader was his party's unity candidate. But after his defeat in Stoke, the old divisions are beginning to show again

In a speech to Ukip’s spring conference in Bolton on February 17, the party’s once and probably future leader Nigel Farage laid down the gauntlet for his successor, Paul Nuttall. Stoke’s by-election was “fundamental” to the future of the party – and Nuttall had to win.
 
One week on, Nuttall has failed that test miserably and thrown the fundamental questions hanging over Ukip’s future into harsh relief. 

For all his bullish talk of supplanting Labour in its industrial heartlands, the Ukip leader only managed to increase the party’s vote share by 2.2 percentage points on 2015. This paltry increase came despite Stoke’s 70 per cent Brexit majority, and a media narrative that was, until the revelations around Nuttall and Hillsborough, talking the party’s chances up.
 
So what now for Nuttall? There is, for the time being, little chance of him resigning – and, in truth, few inside Ukip expected him to win. Nuttall was relying on two well-rehearsed lines as get-out-of-jail free cards very early on in the campaign. 

The first was that the seat was a lowly 72 on Ukip’s target list. The second was that he had been leader of party whose image had been tarnished by infighting both figurative and literal for all of 12 weeks – the real work of his project had yet to begin. 

The chances of that project ever succeeding were modest at the very best. After yesterday’s defeat, it looks even more unlikely. Nuttall had originally stated his intention to run in the likely by-election in Leigh, Greater Manchester, when Andy Burnham wins the Greater Manchester metro mayoralty as is expected in May (Wigan, the borough of which Leigh is part, voted 64 per cent for Brexit).

If he goes ahead and stands – which he may well do – he will have to overturn a Labour majority of over 14,000. That, even before the unedifying row over the veracity of his Hillsborough recollections, was always going to be a big challenge. If he goes for it and loses, his leadership – predicated as it is on his supposed ability to win votes in the north - will be dead in the water. 

Nuttall is not entirely to blame, but he is a big part of Ukip’s problem. I visited Stoke the day before The Guardian published its initial report on Nuttall’s Hillsborough claims, and even then Nuttall’s campaign manager admitted that he was unlikely to convince the “hard core” of Conservative voters to back him. 

There are manifold reasons for this, but chief among them is that Nuttall, despite his newfound love of tweed, is no Nigel Farage. Not only does he lack his name recognition and box office appeal, but the sad truth is that the Tory voters Ukip need to attract are much less likely to vote for a party led by a Scouser whose platform consists of reassuring working-class voters their NHS and benefits are safe.
 
It is Farage and his allies – most notably the party’s main donor Arron Banks – who hold the most power over Nuttall’s future. Banks, who Nuttall publicly disowned as a non-member after he said he was “sick to death” of people “milking” the Hillsborough disaster, said on the eve of the Stoke poll that Ukip had to “remain radical” if it wanted to keep receiving his money. Farage himself has said the party’s campaign ought to have been “clearer” on immigration. 

Senior party figures are already briefing against Nuttall and his team in the Telegraph, whose proprietors are chummy with the beer-swilling Farage-Banks axis. They deride him for his efforts to turn Ukip into “NiceKip” or “Nukip” in order to appeal to more women voters, and for the heavy-handedness of his pitch to Labour voters (“There were times when I wondered whether I’ve got a purple rosette or a red one on”, one told the paper). 

It is Nuttall’s policy advisers - the anti-Farage awkward squad of Suzanne Evans, MEP Patrick O’Flynn (who famously branded Farage "snarling, thin-skinned and aggressive") and former leadership candidate Lisa Duffy – come in for the harshest criticism. Herein lies the leader's almost impossible task. Despite having pitched to members as a unity candidate, the two sides’ visions for Ukip are irreconcilable – one urges him to emulate Trump (who Nuttall says he would not have voted for), and the other urges a more moderate tack. 

Endorsing his leader on Question Time last night, Ukip’s sole MP Douglas Carswell blamed the legacy of the party’s Tea Party-inspired 2015 general election campaign, which saw Farage complain about foreigners with HIV using the NHS in ITV’s leaders debate, for the party’s poor performance in Stoke. Others, such as MEP Bill Etheridge, say precisely the opposite – that Nuttall must be more like Farage. 

Neither side has yet called for Nuttall’s head. He insists he is “not going anywhere”. With his febrile party no stranger to abortive coup and counter-coup, he is unlikely to be the one who has the final say.