On Labour Uncut, the Milibands and Diane Abbott

Yes DM may well win. But to say he "has won" may not help him

I have a strict policy of not responding to personalised blog stuff on the web. But given that I am such a fan of Labour Uncut, and given that it is so widely read in serious Labour circles, I have to respond to a passing reference in Dan Hodges's flowery piece today claiming I have argued that "Diane Abbott would prevail" in the Labour leadership contest. As it happens, I have long known that one of the Miliband brothers would be the next Labour leader, and was I think the first journalist to tip Ed Miliband as Gordon Brown's successor back in 2008 when the younger brother was barely on the leadership radar. Conversely, since the idea of Ed Miliband being next leader has become more conventional, I have been more torn about which brother will win, and repeatedly recorded David Miliband's successes in the campaign (incidentally all of this is different from who "should" win).

Now, it is true that I reported relatively early that Abbott looked like she would make the ballot paper, and then wrote a tongue-in-cheek blog reporting a Labour source explaining how she could win like Harriet Harman won the deputy leadership contest from the outside in 2007. Qualifying the blog with the headline "don't laugh", I concluded: "So, will Diane Abbott be the Harriet Harman of 2010? In reality, almost certainly not. But do not underestimate the unpredictability of this contest."

For the record, I do not think and never have thought that Abbott can or will win this contest. But there is -- still -- "unpredictability" over which of the Milibands will win. Which is why it is mildly odd that Hodges's piece, more importantly, is all about how David Miliband has already won. Nor, I suspect, is it particularly helpful to, er, David Miliband.

PS: Talking of LabourUncut, there was another interesting piece on there yesterday, this time by the new Labour MP Michael Dugher about the need for a move away from top-down leadership of the party. In it, Dugher wrote:

[The] new leader will not have the mandate - whoever wins - that either Tony Blair or Gordon Brown had. This has been a contest, not a coronation, and the outcome is likely to be very close.

I thought I'd mis-read this and my eyes had invented the "not" in the first bit of the sentence. Dugher is a very smart and rather wise guy, but surely the point about this new leader is that he will have a mandate that Brown -- and to an extent Blair -- lacked, as this is the first real contest since Michael Foot became leader in 1980. If David Miliband wins, he will be all the more powerful for having seen off a ruthless bid by the Ed Miliband team to beat him. If Ed Miliband wins, sources close to him say he will have the "mandate" to implement a leadership to the left of New Labour, contrary to the conventional view that he will bring his party back to the centre.

PPS: Look out for my tips for some unexpected names in the shadow cabinet, and some ones to watch along with a lengthy Harriet Harman interview in this week's magazine.

UPDATE: For the record, when I say that Ed Miliband may not lurch to the right if he wins, I am very much not buying into the "Red Ed" nonsense about him being a mad Trot who could never win an election.

James Macintyre is political correspondent for the New Statesman.
David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide