Ed Miliband set the agenda this conference season

If Miliband's analysis was so powerful, why is he not being spoken of as Britain's next Prime Minist

Generating responsibility in society, from top to bottom; crafting a something-for-something culture; battling vested interests in the name of the public good; building a British capitalism that is less dependent on financial services; ensuring that wealth is less concentrated in the South of England; demanding that business leaders offer new apprenticeships to our young people to deliver real skills; making it possible for each generation to enjoy a better quality of life than their predecessors.

These were the key themes in Ed Miliband's speech to the Labour Party conference last week. And each of them, every single one of them, was
repeated by David Cameron yesterday.

It happens very rarely that a Conservative Prime Minister directly echoes his Labour opponent. But Ed Miliband's speech explained the unique challenges that face Britain in a way that no other politician had yet done. A week on from Liverpool, even his severest of critics must now admit that Ed set the agenda this conference season.

The question remains, then, why, if Miliband's analysis was so powerful, is he not now being spoken of as Britain's next Prime Minister?

One of the reasons is Miliband's occasionally stilted speaking style. Another is the entrenched media scepticism about his leadership that has undermined him from the start. But most of all it results from the fact that although he has identified the challenges that Britain faces, he has not provided a persuasive account of how we should overcome them. More than that, when he has proposed a solution, it has too often involved the central state.

Writing in response to the Conservative conference this week, Miliband argued that the difference between the Tories and Labour lay in the fact that Labour was willing to use the power of government when the Tories were not. "All the time in the rules it sets --such as on tax and procurement-- governments make judgements", he argued, "encouraging one type of behaviour compared to another."

This is true. But it is not a powerful enough rallying-call for the British people in a time of political trouble. The answer to the challenges that Britain faces cannot be more government alone. The answer has also to involve you and me. The crisis requires changes in the way that we do business, the way we relate to each other in our communities, the way that we bring up our children. Not just changes in government action.

The Labour leader might not like the "can do optimism" that David Cameron offers. He might not relate to its vision of "get-up-and-go". But the British people do. They don't want just to have things done for them by someone else, least alone by those in Westminster and Whitehall. They want to be part of the solution to Britain's troubles, not just part of their cause.

Ed Miliband knows this. But at the moment the British people don't know that he does. In the months ahead, he must put this right. He must showhow we can come together in our own lives to help overcome the current crisis, even while the Conservatives are still in office. If he does that then he might well succeed not only in shaping the agenda of British politics but in helping to bring about the new political era of which he dreams.

Marc Stears is Visiting Fellow at IPPR and Professor of Political Theory at Oxford.

Marc Stears is fellow in politics, University College, Oxford and visiting fellow at IPPR.

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Why the Liberal Democrats by-election surge is not all it seems

The Lib Dems chalked up impressive results in Stoke and Copeland. But just how much of a fight back is it?

By the now conventional post-Brexit logic, Stoke and Copeland ought to have been uniquely inhospitable for the Lib Dems. 

The party lost its deposit in both seats in 2015, and has no representation on either council. So too were the referendum odds stacked against it: in Stoke, the so-called Brexit capital of Britain, 70 per cent of voters backed Leave last June, as did 62 per cent in Copeland. And, as Stephen has written before, the Lib Dems’ mini-revival has so far been most pronounced in affluent, Conservative-leaning areas which swung for remain. 

So what explains the modest – but impressive – surges in their vote share in yesterday’s contests? In Stoke, where they finished fifth in 2015, the party won 9.8 per cent of the vote, up 5.7 percentage points. They also more than doubled their vote share in Copeland, where they beat Ukip for third with 7.3 per cent share of the vote.

The Brexit explanation is a tempting and not entirely invalid one. Each seat’s not insignificant pro-EU minority was more or less ignored by most of the national media, for whom the existence of remainers in what we’re now obliged to call “left-behind Britain” is often a nuance too far. With the Prime Minister Theresa May pushing for a hard Brexit and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn waving it through, Lib Dem leader Tim Farron has made the pro-EU narrative his own. As was the case for Charles Kennedy in the Iraq War years, this confers upon the Lib Dems a status and platform they were denied as the junior partners in coalition. 

While their stance on Europe is slowly but surely helping the Lib Dems rebuild their pre-2015 demographic core - students, graduates and middle-class professionals employed in the public sector – last night’s results, particularly in Stoke, also give them reason for mild disappointment. 

In Stoke, campaign staffers privately predicted they might manage to beat Ukip for second or third place. The party ran a full campaign for the first time in several years, and canvassing returns suggested significant numbers of Labour voters, mainly public sector workers disenchanted with Corbyn’s stance on Europe, were set to vote Lib Dem. Nor were they intimidated by the Brexit factor: recent council by-elections in Sunderland and Rotheram, which both voted decisively to leave, saw the Lib Dems win seats for the first time on massive swings. 

So it could well be argued that their candidate, local cardiologist Zulfiqar Ali, ought to have done better. Staffordshire University’s campus, which Tim Farron visited as part of a voter registration drive, falls within the seat’s boundaries. Ali, unlike his Labour competitor Gareth Snell and Ukip leader Paul Nuttall, didn’t have his campaign derailed or disrupted by negative media attention. Unlike the Tory candidate Jack Brereton, he had the benefit of being older than 25. And, like 15 per cent of the electorate, he is of Kashmiri origin.  

In public and in private, Lib Dems say the fact that Stoke was a two-horse race between Labour and Ukip ultimately worked to their disadvantage. The prospect of Nuttall as their MP may well have been enough to convince a good number of the Labour waverers mentioned earlier to back Snell. 

With his party hovering at around 10 per cent in national polls, last night’s results give Farron cause for optimism – especially after their near-wipeout in 2015. But it’s easy to forget the bigger picture in all of this. The party have chalked up a string of impressive parliamentary by-election results – second in Witney, a spectacular win in Richmond Park, third in Sleaford and Copeland, and a strong fourth in Stoke. 

However, most of these results represent a reversion to, or indeed an underperformance compared to, the party’s pre-2015 norm. With the notable exception of Richmond’s Sarah Olney, who only joined the Lib Dems after the last general election, these candidates haven’t - or the Lib Dem vote - come from nowhere. Zulfiqar Ali previously sat on the council in Stoke and had fought the seat before, and Witney’s Liz Leffman and Sleaford’s Ross Pepper are both popular local councillors. And for all the excited commentary about Richmond, it was, of course, held by the Lib Dems for 13 years before Zac Goldsmith won it for the Tories in 2010. 

The EU referendum may have given the Lib Dems a new lease of life, but, as their #LibDemFightback trope suggests, they’re best understood as a revanchist, and not insurgent, force. Much has been said about Brexit realigning our politics, but, for now at least, the party’s new normal is looking quite a lot like the old one.