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

Getty.
Show Hide image

Hannan Fodder: This week, Daniel Hannan gets his excuses in early

I didn't do it. 

Since Daniel Hannan, a formerly obscure MEP, has emerged as the anointed intellectual of the Brexit elite, The Staggers is charting his ascendancy...

When I started this column, there were some nay-sayers talking Britain down by doubting that I was seriously going to write about Daniel Hannan every week. Surely no one could be that obsessed with the activities of one obscure MEP? And surely no politician could say enough ludicrous things to be worthy of such an obsession?

They were wrong, on both counts. Daniel and I are as one on this: Leave and Remain, working hand in glove to deliver on our shared national mission. There’s a lesson there for my fellow Remoaners, I’m sure.

Anyway. It’s week three, and just as I was worrying what I might write this week, Dan has ridden to the rescue by writing not one but two columns making the same argument – using, indeed, many of the exact same phrases (“not a club, but a protection racket”). Like all the most effective political campaigns, Dan has a message of the week.

First up, on Monday, there was this headline, in the conservative American journal, the Washington Examiner:

“Why Brexit should work out for everyone”

And yesterday, there was his column on Conservative Home:

“We will get a good deal – because rational self-interest will overcome the Eurocrats’ fury”

The message of the two columns is straightforward: cooler heads will prevail. Britain wants an amicable separation. The EU needs Britain’s military strength and budget contributions, and both sides want to keep the single market intact.

The Con Home piece makes the further argument that it’s only the Eurocrats who want to be hardline about this. National governments – who have to answer to actual electorates – will be more willing to negotiate.

And so, for all the bluster now, Theresa May and Donald Tusk will be skipping through a meadow, arm in arm, before the year is out.

Before we go any further, I have a confession: I found myself nodding along with some of this. Yes, of course it’s in nobody’s interests to create unnecessary enmity between Britain and the continent. Of course no one will want to crash the economy. Of course.

I’ve been told by friends on the centre-right that Hannan has a compelling, faintly hypnotic quality when he speaks and, in retrospect, this brief moment of finding myself half-agreeing with him scares the living shit out of me. So from this point on, I’d like everyone to keep an eye on me in case I start going weird, and to give me a sharp whack round the back of the head if you ever catch me starting a tweet with the word, “Friends-”.

Anyway. Shortly after reading things, reality began to dawn for me in a way it apparently hasn’t for Daniel Hannan, and I began cataloguing the ways in which his argument is stupid.

Problem number one: Remarkably for a man who’s been in the European Parliament for nearly two decades, he’s misunderstood the EU. He notes that “deeper integration can be more like a religious dogma than a political creed”, but entirely misses the reason for this. For many Europeans, especially those from countries which didn’t have as much fun in the Second World War as Britain did, the EU, for all its myriad flaws, is something to which they feel an emotional attachment: not their country, but not something entirely separate from it either.

Consequently, it’s neither a club, nor a “protection racket”: it’s more akin to a family. A rational and sensible Brexit will be difficult for the exact same reasons that so few divorcing couples rationally agree not to bother wasting money on lawyers: because the very act of leaving feels like a betrayal.

Or, to put it more concisely, courtesy of Buzzfeed’s Marie Le Conte:

Problem number two: even if everyone was to negotiate purely in terms of rational interest, our interests are not the same. The over-riding goal of German policy for decades has been to hold the EU together, even if that creates other problems. (Exhibit A: Greece.) So there’s at least a chance that the German leadership will genuinely see deterring more departures as more important than mutual prosperity or a good relationship with Britain.

And France, whose presidential candidates are lining up to give Britain a kicking, is mysteriously not mentioned anywhere in either of Daniel’s columns, presumably because doing so would undermine his argument.

So – the list of priorities Hannan describes may look rational from a British perspective. Unfortunately, though, the people on the other side of the negotiating table won’t have a British perspective.

Problem number three is this line from the Con Home piece:

“Might it truly be more interested in deterring states from leaving than in promoting the welfare of its peoples? If so, there surely can be no further doubt that we were right to opt out.”

If there any rhetorical technique more skin-crawlingly horrible, than, “Your response to my behaviour justifies my behaviour”?

I could go on, about how there’s no reason to think that Daniel’s relatively gentle vision of Brexit is shared by Nigel Farage, UKIP, or a significant number of those who voted Leave. Or about the polls which show that, far from the EU’s response to the referendum pushing more European nations towards the door, support for the union has actually spiked since the referendum – that Britain has become not a beacon of hope but a cautionary tale.

But I’m running out of words, and there’ll be other chances to explore such things. So instead I’m going to end on this:

Hannan’s argument – that only an irrational Europe would not deliver a good Brexit – is remarkably, parodically self-serving. It allows him to believe that, if Brexit goes horribly wrong, well, it must all be the fault of those inflexible Eurocrats, mustn’t it? It can’t possibly be because Brexit was a bad idea in the first place, or because liberal Leavers used nasty, populist ones to achieve their goals.

Read today, there are elements of Hannan’s columns that are compelling, even persuasive. From the perspective of 2020, I fear, they might simply read like one long explanation of why nothing that has happened since will have been his fault.

Jonn Elledge is the editor of the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric. He is on Twitter, far too much, as @JonnElledge.