What David Miliband's latest intervention means

The politics behind the Labour MP's New Statesman leader.

David Miliband's leader in this week's New Statesman, which he has guest-edited, is his most significant political intervention since his much-discussed attack on "Reassurance Labour" in the NS earlier this year. In an echo of that piece, the former foreign secretary mounts a critique of "defensive social democracy", an explicit rebuke to those in Labour who believe the party should simply ride the wave of discontent over austerity. He writes:

[I]f defensive social democracy delivers a win - and it is a big if- the problem will be with governing.

Miliband acknowledges that Labour has a bold economic narrative - "that Britain needs fundamental change in its market structure and culture to compete in the modern world." But he is clear that far more detail is needed for the party to convince voters that it represents a credible alternative to the coalition. In a significant overture to the Liberal Democrats, he suggests that the party should take Vince Cable's 2012 Budget submission to George Osborne, lamenting the lack of a "compelling vision" beyond austerity, and "promise to implement it." It is a statement that some in Labour will see as a snub to the shadow chancellor, Ed Balls, who has set out his own five-point plan for growth.

Rather than simply renew commitments to "tax and spend", Miliband writes, Labour needs to make "switch spends". He highlights a proposal by IPPR, the think-tank where he worked before becoming Tony Blair's Head of Policy, to use a ten-year freeze on child benefit to pay for universal affordable childcare. It is a call for Labour to move beyond the dualistic approach of either supporting or opposing the coalition's cuts.

Miliband's fear is that Labour will "confuse being a better opposition with becoming a potential government". His praise for Jon Cruddas, the MP now leading the party's policy review, who Miliband notes is "not a policy wonk - a great advantage", is a sign that he believes Labour will avoid this trap. But his closing assertion that the Labour "cannot be conservative" is a warning to his brother not to appease the party's status quo faction.

David Miliband warns against "defensive social democracy" in his leader in this week's New Statesman. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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.