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.

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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.