One Nation Labour and its challenges

There is a tension between Miliband's centrist language and his left-wing policies.

Initial reactions to Ed Miliband’s Labour conference speech have been overwhelmingly positive, with even Tories praising the delivery, if not the content. And it really was an excellent conference speech – by far Miliband's best, potently argued without over-doing the wonkish language.

It was a speech that signalled the birth of "One Nation Labour"– a potentially election-winning concept. While Miliband didn’t deliver any new policy announcements, the theme of unity is well-judged for the current climate. It also fits neatly with Labour attacks on Conservatives as elitist and out-of-touch, and criticisms of David Cameron for failing to govern in the inclusive manner he promised. So far, so promising.

But the life of "One Nation Labour" will not be without its challenges. Here are a few that it will have to successfully overcome if it is to secure the party a majority in 2015.

1. ‘New Labour in disguise’

The most obvious Tory attack line will be to remind voters of New Labour and argue that "One Nation Labour" merely amounts to the same ideas in a new disguise.

Miliband has said before that "the era of New Labour has passed". But a new catchphrase for the party, appealing as it may be, will meet with cynicism from the millions of voters for whom "New Labour" merely equates to dashed dreams.

2. Who does One Nation Labour speak for?

One of the curious aspects of Miliband’s speech was that, while it was delivered in decidedly centrist terms, its concrete policy content did not reflect that. To put it another way, this speech would have been viewed as a lurch to the left had it lacked the "One Nation" theme. The stern words about immigration were pure Blue Labour. And on education and health, Miliband’s trenchant criticisms of the current government’s policies were, by extension, rejections of New Labour’s reforms too. With this Parliament not quite yet into its second half, there is ample time for him to deal with these issues. But the crux of his problem is that as the election nears, the double act of pleasing the left with policy announcements, while speaking in rhetoric aimed at winning over swing voters will no longer be viable.

3. Committing too soon? 

Although Miliband has been shy of making concrete policy commitments, he risks future policy being hemmed in by his criticisms of the current government.

Take the 50% tax rate and the NHS. While his opposition to the government’s policies in these areas has broad appeal, it would be easy to believe that Labour have made concrete promises to restore the 50% tax in 2015 and repealing the NHS bill – neither of which are true. In the case of the NHS bill, this may simply not be viable by 2015; indeed, repealing the bill on account of its expensive and top-heavy nature would require more expensive and top-heavy policies.

4. That crowded centre ground

Taking the speech on its ‘One Nation’ theme, this was a plea for the centre ground. But, even if it was successful in helping to establish Cameron’s Conservative Party as not being of that centre, Labour face other challenges for it.

Nick Clegg’s former director of strategy Richard Reeves recently argued that “the left-wing votes 'borrowed' from Labour in 2010 will not be available in 2015" and, accordingly, that the Lib Dems should focus on making themselves the party of the "radical centre". The trouble for Miliband is that such a political space seems little different from his own "One Nation" theme. And predictions of Lib Dem wipeout have become less fashionable, recognising both the party’s long history of defying grim circumstances and, more importantly, the immense personal popularity of many of its 57 MPs. It will be very difficult for Miliband to make inroads into the 57 – as he must – without offending some of his own core support.

 

Ed Miliband delivers his keynote speech at the Labour Party conference in Manchester. Photograph: Getty Images.

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

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As long as Jeremy Corbyn's Labour opponents are divided, he will rule

The leader's foes have yet to agree on when and how a challenge should take place.

Labour MPs began plotting to remove Jeremy Corbyn as leader before he even held the position. They have not stopped since. From the outset, most regarded him as electorally and morally defective. Nothing has caused them to relinquish this view.

A week before the first major elections of this parliament, Labour found itself conducting a debate normally confined to far-right internet forums: was Hitler a Zionist? For some MPs, the distress lay in how unsurprised they were by all this. Since Corbyn’s election last September, the party has become a mainstream venue for hitherto fringe discussions.

Many MPs believe that Labour will be incapable of rebuilding its standing among the Jewish community as long as Corbyn remains leader. In the 1930s, Jewish support for the party was as high as 80 per cent. “They handed you your . . . membership just after your circumcision,” quipped the father in the 1976 television play Bar Mitzvah Boy. By the time of the last general election, a poll found that support had fallen to a mere 22 per cent. It now stands at just 8.5 per cent.

Corbyn’s critics cite his typical rejection of anti-Semitism and "all forms of racism" (as if unable to condemn the former in isolation), his defence of a tweet sent by his brother, Piers (“Zionists can’t cope with anyone supporting rights for Palestine”), and his description of Hamas and Hezbollah as “friends”. The Lab­our leader dismissed the latter remark as a diplomatic nicety but such courtesy was not displayed when he addressed Labour Friends of Israel and failed to mention the country’s name. When challenged on his record of combating anti-Semitism, Corbyn frequently invokes his parents’ presence at the Battle of Cable Street, a reference that does not provide the reassurance intended. The Jewish community does not doubt that Labour has stood with it in the past. It questions whether it is prepared to stand with it in the present.

MPs say that Labour’s inept response to anti-Semitism has strengthened the moral case for challenging Corbyn. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of how the fear of “enormous reputational damage” had pushed him to the brink of resignation. As the New Statesman went to press, Corbyn’s first electoral test was looming. Every forecast showed the party on course to become the first opposition to lose council seats in a non-general-election year since 1985. Yet Corbyn appeared to insist on 3 May that this would not happen, gifting his opponents a benchmark by which to judge him.

Sadiq Khan was projected to become the party’s first successful London mayoral candidate since 2004. But having distanced himself from Corbyn throughout the race, he intends to deny him any credit if he wins. Regardless of the results on 5 May, there will be no challenge to the Labour leader before the EU referendum on 23 June. Many of the party’s most Corbyn-phobic MPs are also among its most Europhile. No cause, they stress, should distract from the defence of the UK’s 43-year EU membership.

Whether Corbyn should be challenged in the four weeks between the referendum and the summer recess is a matter of dispute among even his most committed opponents. Some contend that MPs have nothing to lose from trying and should be prepared to “grind him down” through multiple attempts, if necessary. Others fear that he would be empowered by winning a larger mandate than he did last September and argue that he must be given “longer to fail”. Still more hope that Corbyn will instigate a midterm handover to the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, his closest ally, whom they regard as a beatable opponent.

Those who are familiar with members’ thinking describe many as “anxious” and in need of “reassurance” but determined that Corbyn receives adequate time to “set out his stall”. One shadow cabinet minister spoke of being “caught between Scylla and Charybdis” – that is, “a Labour Party membership which is ardently Corbynista and a British electorate which is ardently anti-Corbynista”. In their most pessimistic moments, some MPs gloomily wonder which group will deselect them first. The possibility that a new Conservative leader could trigger an early general election is cited by some as cause for haste and by others as the only means by which Corbynism can be definitively discredited.

The enduring debate over whether the Labour leader would automatically make the ballot if challenged (the party’s rules are ambiguous) is dismissed by most as irrelevant. Shadow cabinet members believe that Corbyn would achieve the requisite nominations. Momentum, the Labour leader’s praetorian guard, has privately instructed its members to be prepared to lobby MPs for this purpose.

There is no agreement on who should face Corbyn if his removal is attempted. The veteran MP Margaret Hodge has been touted as a “stalking horse” to lead the charge before making way for a figure such as the former paratrooper Dan Jarvis or the shadow business secretary, Angela Eagle. But in the view of a large number of shadow cabinet members, no challenge will materialise. They cite the high bar for putative leaders – the endorsement of 20 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs – and the likelihood of failure. Many have long regarded mass front-bench resignations and trade union support as ­essential preconditions for a successful challenge, conditions they believe will not be met less than a year after Corbyn’s victory.

When Tony Blair resigned as Labour leader in 2007, he had already agreed not to fight the next general election and faced a pre-eminent rival in Gordon Brown. Neither situation exists today. The last Labour leader to be constitutionally deposed was J R Clynes in 1922 – when MPs, not members, were sovereign. Politics past and present militate against Corbyn’s opponents. There is but one man who can remove the leader: himself.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 06 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The longest hatred