Ed Miliband struggles to put rift stories behind him

"Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense."

This morning's Independent on Sunday has two Father's Day gifts for dad of two, Ed Miliband: one welcome, the other not.

The first is a bullish interview with the Labour leader -- "No regrets. No crisis. Ed Miliband hits back". The second is a ComRes poll which has Labour neck-and-neck* with the Tories and, more worryingly, gives Miliband a net approval rating of -27 when respondents are asked if he is "turning out to be a good leader for the Labour Party". The latter figure is down ten points on a month ago.

The interview offers Miliband a chance to respond to some of the claims made in a new biography "ED: The Milibands and the making of a Labour leader" by James Macintyre and Mehdi Hasan, my former and present colleagues respectively.

One of the more explosive passages of the book suggests that while Ed Miliband recalls being open and honest about his intention to stand for leadership 13 months ago, David Miliband remembers things somewhat differently. Asked about these inconsistencies, Ed Miliband tells the IoS:

I'm not going to get into the detail of this. What we both agree on is that we talked before both our candidacies were declared and talked to him about the position too and we're both on the same page on that.

Yet it is in the detail where you will find the root of the unease between the two. As Mehdi writes in this week's New Statesman, drawing on his book:

Ed says he went to David's home in Primrose Hill, north London, on the evening of 12 May ... to inform him of his own decision to stand. In a story that Ed has since repeated to friends and in interviews, he says David was polite and understanding. "I'd rather you didn't run," David is said to have remarked. "I'd rather have a campaign where my brother is supporting me, if I'm really honest." But he then added: "I don't want me to be the reason you don't stand, so I think you should do it.

Or did he? Today, neither David nor Ed can agree on when or even if this crucial meeting occurred. David is emphatic there was no such meeting: his younger brother did not set foot in his house that week.

Another assertion -- that the brothers' wives Justine and Louise fell out over the leadership contest -- is dismissed as:

Nonsense, nonsense, that's nonsense. It's nonsense. David and Louise were at our wedding a few weeks ago, and we had a great day. It was great that they were there and enjoyed themselves.

(As the IoS's Jane Merrick points out, however, David and Louise didn't attend the North London party that followed the ceremony.)

Elsewhere this morning there is no shortage of advice for the younger Miliband. Martin Ivens, writing in the Sunday Times (£), argues that Labour need to fight the coalition from the centre where they would represent a far more threatening foe than from the left. He writes:

The perverse effect of [the unions'] left-wing militancy has been to unite Cameron's and Clegg's warring troops against a common enemy. The Liberal Democrats owe the unions nothing -- they have never donated to the party's coffers -- and despise them as political dinosaurs. The Conservatives, wobbling like jellies over health, have every reason to show some backbone in a popular cause.

Meanwhile in the Sunday Telegraph, Matthew d'Ancona poses the following questions:

Was its engagement with New Labour, to borrow Blair's own language, "passionate" or merely "tactical"? Is Ed Miliband right to believe that you can shift the centre ground of politics when you are in Opposition? And is his renunciation of New Labour a step into the past or a handshake with the future?

*A YouGov/Sunday Times poll has better news for Labour (on 42 per cent), a five point lead of the Conservatives (37 per cent). The Liberal Democrats are back on 10 per cent.

Jon Bernstein, former deputy editor of New Statesman, is a digital strategist and editor. He tweets @Jon_Bernstein. 

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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.