Miliband renews attack on New Labour ahead of "peace meeting" with Blair

The Labour leader tells his MPs that it is right to move on from New Labour, which was "formed 19 years ago", but new polling revives doubts over the party's performance.

Ed Miliband addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party last night for the first time since Tony Blair's intervention in the New Statesman and took the opportunity to again rebut his criticisms. He told MPs:

New Labour was formed 19 years ago. Tony Blair taught us the world changes, and the world does change, and we will learn our lessons.

After Blair warned him not to "tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending", Miliband pointedly added:

I am incredibly proud of our record, but we need to learn this truth: opposition leaders who say their government got it right and the electorate got it wrong remain leaders of the opposition.

The party, he suggested, had become a victim of its own success (or at least the coalition's failure).  "Eighteen months ago, people were saying we were not up to it. Now they are claiming we are too effective an opposition". 

Miliband was aided by a spirited John Prescott, who declared that it was "crazy" for Labour start "dividing" less than three weeks before the local elections. "Let’s stop complaining and start campaigning," he said. As Tessa Jowell revealed on the Daily Politics yesterday, Blair and Miliband will meet later this week (possibly tomorrow, when they will both attend Margaret Thatcher's funeral) in an attempt to heal the rift.

At last night's meeting, Miliband compared Labour to "a football team that is winning at half-time" but given that no modern opposition has ever won without being at least 20 points ahead (the Tories' peak lead from 2005-10 was 26 points; Labour's highest to date is 16) many MPs remain alarmed at the slightness of the party's advantage.

The latest Guardian/ICM poll puts Labour just six points ahead of the Tories, while the YouGov daily tracker has them eight points ahead. Worse for Miliband, the ICM survey suggests that Labour's lead could be in spite of, rather than because of his performance as leader. The poll gives him a net approval rating of -23, well below Cameron's -11 and Osborne's -14 and worse than the -17 he recorded at the nadir of his leadership in December 2011. 

But this is a parliamentary system, you say, why should we care? The answer is that personal ratings are frequently a better long-term indicator of the election result than voting intentions. Labour often led the Tories under Neil Kinnock, for instance (sometimes by as much as 24 points), but Kinnock was never rated above John Major as a potential prime minister. A more recent example is the 2011 Scottish parliament election, which saw Alex Salmond ranked above Iain Gray even as Labour led in the polls. The final result, of course, was an SNP majority. Conversely, Margaret Thatcher won in 1979 despite trailing Jim Callaghan by 19 points as the "best prime minister".

But Labour MPs are also troubled by the Tories' continuing advantage on the economy, another historically reliable indicator of the general election result. The latest YouGov poll shows their lead stretching from one point to four. 

Blair's intervention aside, the last month has been a successful one for Miliband. David Miliband's departure for New York has finally drawn a line under the fraternal soap opera and his Commons statement on Thatcher was rightly praised by Conservative MPs for its statesmanlike qualities. But once politics as normal resumes after Wednesday, Blair is unlikely to be the only one posing tough questions for Miliband. 

Ed Miliband speaks at the CBI's annual conference on November 19, 2012 in London. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

OLI SCARFF/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Harriet Harman: “Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister”

The former deputy leader of the Labour Party urged women to unite across the divided party.

The day-long women's conference is usually the friendliest place at Labour party conference. Not only does it have a creche and a very clear emphasis on accessibility, but everybody who attends starts from a place of fundamental agreement before the sessions have even begun. For that reason, it's often ignored by political hacks in search of a juicy splits story (especially since it takes place on Saturday, before the "real" conference action really gets underway). But with the party divided and the abuse of women on and off social media a big concern, there was a lot to say.

This year, kick off was delayed because of the announcement of Jeremy Corbyn's victory in the leadership election. The cheer for the renewed leader in the packed women's conference hall was far bigger than that in the main hall, although not everybody was clapping. After a sombre tribute to the murdered Labour MP and former chair of the Labour Women's Network Jo Cox, Harriet Harman took to the stage.

As a long-time campaigner for women's rights, veteran MP and former deputy leader of the Labour Party, Harman is always popular with women's conference - even if her position on the current leadership and her status as a former Blairite minister places her out of sync with some of the audience. Rather than merely introducing the first speaker as the agenda suggested, Harman took the opportunity to make a coded dig at Corbyn by doing a little opposition of her own.

"Theresa May is a woman, but she is no sister," she declared, going on to describe the way that May, as shadow spokesperson for women and equalities under William Hague, had been a "drag anchor" on Harman's own efforts to enact pro-women reforms while Labour were in government. The Thatcher comparison for May is ubiquitous already, but Harman made it specific, saying that like Thatcher, Theresa May is a woman prime minister who is no friend to women.

Harman then turned her attention to internal Labour party affairs, reassuring the assembled women that a divided party didn't have to mean that no advances could be made. She gestured towards the turmoil in Labour in the 1980s, saying that "no matter what positions women were taking elsewhere in the party, we worked together for progress". Her intervention chimes with the recent moves by high profile former frontbenchers like Chuka Umunna and Yvette Cooper to seek select committee positions, and Andy Burnham's campaign to become mayor of Greater Manchester.

Harman's message to women's conference was clear: the time for opposition to Corbyn is over now - we have to live with this leadership, but we can't let the equalities legacy of the Blair years be subsumed in the meantime. She ended by saying that "we have many leaders in the Labour party," pointing to Jess Phillips, the chair of the women's PLP, and Angela Rayner, shadow minister for education, women and equalities. Like Burnham, Cooper et al, Harman has clearly decided that Corbyn can't be unseated, so ways must be found to work around him.

Rayner followed Harman onto the stage. As one of Corbyn's shadow ministerial team, Rayner is far from in agreement with Harman on everything, and rather than speak about any specific policy aims, she addressed women's conference on the subject of her personal journey to the front bench. She described how her mother was "born on the largest council estate in Europe and was one of twelve children" and "never felt loved and didn’t know how to love, because hugs, cuddles and any signs of affection just wasn’t the norm". She went on to say "mum won't mind me saying this - to this day she cannot read and write". Her mother was in the audience, attending her first Labour conference.

As a former care worker who became a mother herself when she was just 16, Rayner is a rarity at the top of Labour politics. She told the Guardian in 2012 that she is used to being underestimated because of her youth, her gender and her northern accent: "I'm a pretty young woman, lots of red hair, and everyone expects me to be stupid when I walk into a meeting for the first time. I'm not stupid and most people know that now, but I still like to be underestimated because it gives me an edge. It gives me a bit of stealth."

The mass shadow cabinet resignations in June propelled Rayner to the top sooner than an MP only elected in 2015 might have expected, and she has yet to really prove her mettle on the grind of parliamentary opposition and policy detail. But if Labour is ever to win back the seats in the north where Ukip and Brexit are now strong, it's the likes of Rayner that will do it. As Harriet Harman herself shows, the women and equalities brief is a good place to start - for even in turbulent, divided times for Labour, women's conference is still a place where people can find common ground.

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.