Glasman said what many in Labour are thinking about Ed Miliband

Anxiety in the party about the leader's strategy of creeping up quietly on the coalition is building

"The quiet crisis" was at one point going to be a theme for Ed Miliband's campaign to highlight the consequences of coalition economic policy. The crisis in question was the discreet torment of families that gather around their kitchen table every night wondering how to make ends meet; what expense to spare next. It is a nice phrase, but it now better describes the state of the Labour party under Miliband's leadership.

It isn't a full-blown, noisy crisis with public rows and resignations, doors slamming, crockery breaking. It is a case of MPs, shadow ministers, party members, fellow-travellers in the media all holding their heads in their hands (metaphorically; sometimes literally) and wondering whether the Labour leader can mount a serious challenge to the coalition, let alone win an election at some point.

The collective despond explains, in part, why Lord Glasman's article in this week's New Statesman has received so much attention. It is an interesting critique of Ed Miliband's project, accusing the leader of excessive caution, suggesting he is being held back by deference to figures from the last government (i.e. Ed Balls) and urging some bolder more imaginative action to have an impact in 2012.

But it is the author as much as the analysis that makes it a significant intervention. Glasman was ennobled by Miliband and has been, over the past year, a close advisor. (He is not, nor has ever been, in any meaningful sense of the word, a "guru".) If this is what Ed's friends are saying, just imagine the view among his enemies and rivals. Some of the harsh language in the NS column no doubt expresses the frustration of someone who was once closer to the leader than he is now - a case of political love unrequited. And yet you hear variations on Glasman's theme from many quarters of the party. The prescriptions are always different but the underlying accusation is the same: caution, indecision and a failure to capture the public imagination. The passages of Glasman's column that have been most quoted elsewhere are the ones that express in a public forum what plenty of people in the party are saying in private - including people who think Ed Miliband can't run away from Glasman's "Blue Labour" ideas fast enough. In other words, even people who disagree with the prescription recognise the diagnosis.

The defence from Miliband's team amounts to an elaborate call for patience: the party has bounced back remarkably well from crushing defeat; it is more united than ever before; people are still giving the coalition the benefit of the doubt; the full scale of Tory economic failure hasn't set in yet; the media are hostile. This was all neatly expressed in a New Year strategy memo leaked to the Times, including the memorable lines that Labour has made "the best recovery of any opposition party in the history of opposition parties" and that comparisons between Ed Miliband and William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith or Michael Howard are "wide of the mark".The party would rather such comparisons were donwright impossible.

There is much truth in the analysis underpinning the patience strategy. The party is indeed united and has bounced back from an election drubbing. Labour mostly leads in opinion polls. But the context is peculiar - Labour lost the last election, but the Tories didn't win it. No-one knows how well the party should be doing at this point in the electoral cycle because the coalition (which contains a kind of in-built opposition mechanism in the form of the Lib Dems) is such a political novelty. Unity, meanwhile, has been bought by avoiding difficult choices, especially in the discussion of public spending and how Labour would reform public services.

As for the poll advantage, it melted away when David Cameron grabbed a few populist headlines with his European veto manoeuvre. That confirms to many opposition MPs that what modest lead they have is soft - an expression of distaste for the generally glum state of the nation and not a serious endorsement of Labour as a potential party of government. They'll give Miliband more chances, though. He hasn't yet proved beyond doubt that his strategy of creeping up on the government will fail. The problem is, of course, that the only way you know when a creeping up strategy has failed is when you get right up close and find the enemy saw you coming a mile off. And by then it's too late.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of 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