The challenges facing Ed Miliband

Winning outright at the next election will prove as tough for Labour as the Tories.

Ed Miliband is considerably more likely to be the next prime minister than most people have realised.

The biggest reason is less to do with a solid Labour win in the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election, or anything the Labour leader has yet done to set out his stall for the year ahead, which will be his task at Saturday's Fabian conference, but is rather the stark difficulty in identifying a plausible re-election strategy for David Cameron.

No postwar prime minister has ever governed for a full term and then increased their party's share of the vote at the next general election. It will not be enough for Cameron to recover his support if an economic upturn arrives at the end of his austerity parliament; he must break the mould and increase it. Unless he can become more popular while governing, something that has eluded his predecessors in the best of economic conditions, there will not be a Tory-majority government elected in May 2015.

Yet a Tory-Lib Dem pact seems close to impossible, and Michael Ashcroft is gathering evidence that it wouldn't work anyway. And Cameron will struggle to negotiate his way back in if he seeks a majority and falls short: this time it would be his legitimacy in question. Any outcome where alternative governing combinations are possible could well see him ousted.

These Tory difficulties are not cause for Labour complacency. Even with a fairly modest increase in Labour's vote from 29 per cent, Ed Miliband has every chance of drawing the next election by default. He would very likely become prime minister with one more seat or one more vote than the Conservatives. But winning outright is probably as tough for Labour as for the Tories. Hung parliaments are as likely to be the norm as the exception, as IPPR has recently set out. (Those who disagree need to complete the sentence: "It should be easier for the Tories to win a majority in 2015 than it was in 2010 because . . .")

Miliband has received much contradictory advice since becoming leader. He has been told that nobody wants to hear from the last government, and to define himself in 100 days. He has been reminded that he has a fragile mandate from a close, and split, leadership result, and told to assert himself on his critics. He has upset MPs concerned about his desire to draw a line under the New Labour era, and his repeated voicing of fears that Labour has yet to understand how much it has to change to reconnect. Such, inevitably, is the lot of the leader of the opposition.

In his first three months, Miliband established that he will have a more collegiate leadership style, and that he is in the foothills of a long campaign and doesn't see rushing into photo opportunities or political pyrotechnics as the answer. His party's morale is mixed. Among younger activists, who campaigned in great numbers in Oldham, it is high. But excepting the class of 2010, many Labour MPs have been fairly miserable ever since the autumn of 2007, with the novel experience of recession and defeat mixed into the cocktail of hatred towards MPs after the expenses crisis.

The most daunting challenges for the Labour leader are to restore the party's economic reputation and forge a new political economy, and to demonstrate some supple leadership in dividing the coalition and demonstrating Labour's ability to adapt to this more plural political environment. Punching the Liberal Democrats in the face is often not the best way to exploit the emerging coalition fault lines. He must also define the broad themes of his policy review. A quarter of current party members were not in Labour a year ago – the test remains whether Labour can show that they can shape its campaigns and policy.

Another feature of 2011 may be an ever sharper geographical polarisation in British politics. The electoral map between coalition and the opposition – except for Labour in London and the Scottish Lib Dems – presents quite a stark north-south divide, which the pattern of public spending and cuts will exacerbate. This is a problem for the government, whose "there is no alternative" mantra risks creating a bunker mentality. But it will not be enough for Labour to rack up enormous leads in Scotland and the north if it cannot also rebuild its collapsed support in the south outside London.

The opening to the new year has been good for Miliband. The government cannot win a public argument about why it is increasing VAT but refusing to renew the bank bonus tax.

If, as the governing parties claim today, Labour was always going to win the Oldham East by-election, it is quite a mystery why it took place.

While Tory tactical voting has averted a deeper Lib Dem party crisis, the by-election has cost Nick Clegg his governing strategy – his warnings to his party not to seek distinctiveness within the coalition now scrapped in favour of "Operation Detach", and an increasing amount of yellow dissent at every level.

Conservative MPs are in a mood to respond to this. The patently false Conservative claim that they fought a whole-hearted campaign has brought trust between Cameron and his party activists to new lows. If Cameron would like some form of pact or arrangement, he has increased the obstacles to it.

There is no threat to the coalition itself, but these self-inflicted wounds are potentially significant longer-term fissures. Ed Miliband will welcome the assistance but certainly cannot rely on his political opponents. At the Fabian New Year conference on Saturday, he will need to begin to colour in the shape of the alternative platform he is beginning to construct.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the Fabian Society. The New Statesman is media partner for the Fabian/FEPS New Year Conference "Next Left: What is the Alternative?" on Saturday.

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Ken Livingstone says publicly what many are saying privately: tomorrow belongs to John McDonnell

The Shadow Chancellor has emerged as a frontrunner should another Labour leadership election happen. 

“It would be John.” Ken Livingstone, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s most vocal allies in the media, has said publicly what many are saying privately: if something does happen to Corbyn, or should he choose to step down, place your bets on John McDonnell. Livingstone, speaking to Russia Today, said that if Corbyn were "pushed under a bus", John McDonnell, the shadow chancellor, would be the preferred candidate to replace him.

Even among the Labour leader’s allies, speculation is rife as to if the Islington North MP will lead the party into the 2020 election. Corbyn would be 71 in 2020 – the oldest candidate for Prime Minister since Clement Attlee lost the 1955 election aged 72.

While Corbyn is said to be enjoying the role at present, he still resents the intrusion of much of the press and dislikes many of the duties of the party leader. McDonnell, however, has impressed even some critics with his increasingly polished TV performances and has wowed a few sceptical donors. One big donor, who was thinking of pulling their money, confided that a one-on-one chat with the shadow chancellor had left them feeling much happier than a similar chat with Ed Miliband.

The issue of the succession is widely discussed on the left. For many, having waited decades to achieve a position of power, pinning their hopes on the health of one man would be unforgivably foolish. One historically-minded trade union official points out that Hugh Gaitskell, at 56, and John Smith, at 55, were 10 and 11 years younger than Corbyn when they died. In 1994, the right was ready and had two natural successors in the shape of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown in place. In 1963, the right was unprepared and lost the leadership to Harold Wilson, from the party's centre. "If something happens, or he just decides to call it a day, [we have to make sure] it will be '94 not '63," they observed.

While McDonnell is just two years younger than Corbyn, his closest ally in politics and a close personal friend, he is seen by some as considerably more vigorous. His increasingly frequent outings on television have seen him emerge as one of the most adept media performers from the Labour left, and he has won internal plaudits for his recent tussles with George Osborne over the tax bill.

The left’s hopes of securing a non-Corbyn candidate on the ballot have been boosted in recent weeks. The parliamentary Labour party’s successful attempt to boot Steve Rotheram off the party’s ruling NEC, while superficially a victory for the party’s Corbynsceptics, revealed that the numbers are still there for a candidate of the left to make the ballot. 30 MPs voted to keep Rotheram in place, with many MPs from the left of the party, including McDonnell, Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John Trickett, abstaining.

The ballot threshold has risen due to a little-noticed rule change, agreed over the summer, to give members of the European Parliament equal rights with members of the Westminster Parliament. However, Labour’s MEPs are more leftwing, on the whole, than the party in Westminster . In addition, party members vote on the order that Labour MEPs appear on the party list, increasing (or decreasing) their chances of being re-elected, making them more likely to be susceptible to an organised campaign to secure a place for a leftwinger on the ballot.

That makes it – in the views of many key players – incredibly likely that the necessary 51 nominations to secure a place on the ballot are well within reach for the left, particularly if by-election selections in Ogmore, where the sitting MP, is standing down to run for the Welsh Assembly, and Sheffield Brightside, where Harry Harpham has died, return candidates from the party’s left.

McDonnell’s rivals on the left of the party are believed to have fallen short for one reason or another. Clive Lewis, who many party activists believe could provide Corbynism without the historical baggage of the man himself, is unlikely to be able to secure the nominations necessary to make the ballot.

Any left candidate’s route to the ballot paper runs through the 2015 intake, who are on the whole more leftwing than their predecessors. But Lewis has alienated many of his potential allies, with his antics in the 2015 intake’s WhatsApp group a sore point for many. “He has brought too much politics into it,” complained one MP who is also on the left of the party. (The group is usually used for blowing off steam and arranging social events.)

Lisa Nandy, who is from the soft left rather than the left of the party, is widely believed to be in the running also, despite her ruling out any leadership ambitions in a recent interview with the New Statesman.However, she would represent a break from the Corbynite approach, albeit a more leftwing one than Dan Jarvis or Hilary Benn.

Local party chairs in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is profiling should another leadership election arise. One constituency chair noted to the New Statesman that: “you could tell who was going for it [last time], because they were desperate to speak [at events]”. Tom Watson, Caroline Flint, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall all visited local parties across the country in preparation for their election bids in 2015.

Now, speaking to local party activists, four names are mentioned more than any other: Dan Jarvis, currently on the backbenches, but in whom the hopes – and the donations – of many who are disillusioned by the current leadership are invested, Gloria De Piero, who is touring the country as part of the party’s voter registration drive, her close ally Jon Ashworth, and John McDonnell.

Another close ally of Corbyn and McDonnell, who worked closely on the leadership election, is in no doubt that the shadow chancellor is gearing up for a run should the need arise.  “You remember when that nice Mr Watson went touring the country? Well, pay attention to John’s movements.”

As for his chances of success, McDonnell may well be even more popular among members than Corbyn himself. He is regularly at or near the top of LabourList's shadow cabinet rankings, and is frequently praised by members. Should he be able to secure the nominations to get on the ballot, an even bigger victory than that secured by Corbyn in September is not out of the question.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.