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.