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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leader: The divisions within Labour

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change.

Labour is a party torn between its parliamentary and activist wings. Since Jeremy Corbyn, who this week appealed desperately for unity, was re-elected by a landslide last September, Labour has become the first opposition in 35 years to lose a ­by-election to the governing party and has continually trailed the Conservatives by a double-digit margin. Yet polling suggests that, were Mr Corbyn’s leadership challenged again, he would win by a comfortable margin. Meanwhile, many of the party’s most gifted and experienced MPs refuse to serve on the front bench. In 2015 Mr Corbyn made the leadership ballot only with the aid of political opponents such as Margaret Beckett and Frank Field. Of the 36 MPs who nominated him, just 15 went on to vote for him.

Having hugely underestimated the strength of the Labour left once, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) will not do so again. In the contest that will follow Mr Corbyn’s eventual departure, the centrists could lock out potential successors such as the shadow business secretary, Rebecca Long-Bailey. Under Labour’s current rules, candidates require support from at least 15 per cent of the party’s MPs and MEPs.

This conundrum explains the attempt by Mr Corbyn’s supporters to reduce the threshold to 5 per cent. The “McDonnell amendment” (named after the shadow chancellor, who failed to make the ballot in 2007 and 2010) is being championed by the Bennite Campaign for Labour Party Democracy and Jon Lansman of Momentum, who is interviewed by Tanya Gold on page 34. “For 20 years the left was denied a voice,” he tweeted to the party’s deputy leader, Tom Watson, on 19 March. “We will deny a voice to no one. We face big challenges, and we need our mass membership to win again.”

The passage of the amendment at this year’s Labour conference would aid Mr Lansman’s decades-long quest to bring the party under the full control of activists. MPs have already lost the third of the vote they held under the electoral college system. They face losing what little influence they retain.

No Labour leader has received less support from his MPs than Mr Corbyn. However, the amendment would enable the election of an even more unpopular figure. For this reason, it should be resolutely opposed. One should respect the motivation of the members and activists, yet Labour must remain a party capable of appealing to a majority of people, a party that is capable of winning elections.

Since it was founded, Labour has been an explicitly parliamentary party. As Clause One of its constitution states: “[The party’s] purpose is to organise and maintain in Parliament and in the country a political Labour Party.” The absurdity of a leader opposed by as much as 95 per cent of his own MPs is incompatible with this mission. Those who do not enjoy the backing of their parliamentary colleagues will struggle to persuade the voters that they deserve their support.

Labour’s divisions have rendered it unfit for government at a moment of profound political change. Rather than formalising this split, the party needs to overcome it – or prepare for one of the greatest defeats in its history.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution