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.

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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.