Labour's internal battle is a tale of two Eds, both called Miliband

The opposition ranks are close to despair over an apparent lack of direction.

Once again the Labour party is being spared embarrassment by Tory divisions over Europe. It is a familiar pattern. When the Conservatives are quiet and organised the spotlight falls on Ed Miliband. He appears to mumble or fluff his lines. The script isn’t gripping the audience. Labour MPs shuffle uncomfortably in their seats. It all starts to look a bit awkward. And then everyone’s attention is distracted by fighting somewhere off to the right of the stage – an unseemly scuffle that looks as if it might end up with David Cameron falling on his backside or being dragged into the wings never to return.

Every Labour MP I speak to declares it is not safe to rely on Tory disorder to make Miliband look like a credible Prime Minister in waiting. But government tumult occurs with sufficient regularity to keep the embers of optimism glowing on the opposition benches.

Yet there is another familiar cycle that afflicts the Labour side. It is the pattern of doubt over the viability of Miliband’s bid for power being filtered through the urge to remove Ed Balls from the shadow Treasury brief. The argument is well-rehearsed and has two pillars. First is the belief that Labour will not persuade wavering voters that it has something fresh and exciting to say about the economy (a pre-condition for victory) as long as the man delivering its main economic message is perceived as an incarnation of the politics and fiscal strategy of Gordon Brown. The second concern is that Balls is congenitally opposed to any public rehearsal of ideas for reforming the way government and the state function; that he is a classic Treasury centraliser and sceptical about the need to urge innovation in the public sector. In that guise, Balls is seen as the engine of incrementalism, holding back any declaration of governing intent through bold policy priorities before there is more clarity about the state of the economy that a Labour government would inherit.

The most persuasive counter-arguments are that Balls’s macroeconomic analysis has proved much more prescient than Osborne’s and that he is one of few obviously substantial and experienced figures on the Labour front bench. He is respected as an economist even by those who don’t like him as a politician, which is more than can be said about the present Chancellor. To ditch Balls would be to declare a vote of no confidence in pretty much everything Labour has said on the economy thus far in opposition, which is a path self-evidently fraught with hazard.

The latest intimation of irritation with Balls comes in a piece in the Sun today, declaring enthusiasm for the “Blue Labour” strand of thinking in which Miliband has dabbled. It cites unnamed sources agitating for Jon Cruddas, currently head of the party’s policy review, to be made Shadow Chancellor. Balls, it is suggested, might be made Shadow Foreign Secretary – a role of adequate seniority to fit the man’s status as a heavyweight. (What the Sun’s anonymous informers think should therefore become of Douglas Alexander, who currently holds the shadow foreign affairs brief, isn’t disclosed.)

These whispers, aimed presumably at influencing the outcome of a shadow cabinet reshuffle that everyone expects to happen over the summer or early in the autumn, confirm something I wrote back in January. Namely, that the battle for possession of Labour’s soul is no longer between “new” and “old” permutations but between “blue” and “brown”. I concluded then that:

There is a caricature of Labour’s public-sector debate that pits the frugal, reforming idolators of Tony Blair against spendthrift, reactionary disciples of Brown. The distinction is increasingly meaningless. Orthodox Blairites are a rare and neutered breed and even they accept that Balls, for all that the Tories paint him as Brownism incarnate, is wedded to budget discipline.

The real tension is both subtler and more profound. It is between the need to defend Labour’s legacy of investment in public services and the impulse to imagine different ways of effecting social change. It is the dilemma of how to rehabilitate the abstract principle that government can be the citizen’s friend while also attacking the current government as a menace to society. It is the battle between Brown and Blue shades of Labour which remains unresolved, because Ed Miliband is personally steeped in both.

I stand by that analysis. I would add, though, that five months have elapsed since then and Labour appear not to have advanced any closer to the affections of the undecided electorate. If anything, their reliance on coalition cock-up and in-fighting has become more pronounced.

Naturally, the anxiety this provokes has become more acute. A crucial factor in all of this is the departure of David Miliband from the front line of British politics and indeed from the shores of Britain. The elder Miliband was not, as some seem to think, loitering with intent as a leader-in-waiting, although he was sometimes talked up as a potential shadow chancellor. But his erasure from the picture has had a more subtle effect. David may not have been an imminent candidate for the leadership but he was an ever-present emblem of a different leadership that might have been. His departure has somehow underscored the point that Ed won. The victory of autumn 2010, which felt lopsided because it was delivered by a peculiar internal electoral system that allowed a trade union bloc vote to trump the will of members and MPs, has been cemented. The younger Miliband’s position at the top is undisputed. There is nothing and no-one stopping him from doing with the party what he wants – taking it in the direction of his choosing – except perhaps Ed himself.

An observation I often hear from Labour MPs, advisors and people close to the leader’s office is that there are really two Eds. There is the cautious, calculating one who learned machine politics and tactical manoeuvring at the feet of Gordon Brown. Then there is the bold and energetic one who is a fluent and persuasive advocate for a new left vision that might cut through the sterile ideological and factional vendettas that encrusted the last Labour government. It is, in a sense, the difference between “One Nation” Labour as a genuine call to arms to rebuild solidarity and national purpose and “One Nation” Labour as a bit of wrinkly old sticky tape holding disparate parts of a directionless machine together.

From my conversations with Labour people – on the left and the right of the party – I sense diminishing confidence that “good” Ed will triumph. The optimism born of Tory division and Cameron’s loss of control is yielding diminishing returns for the Labour leader, not least because angry and disillusioned Conservative voters are flocking to Ukip instead of rallying to the main opposition party. Ed Miliband is entering very dangerous territory. If the opinion polls stay as stuck as they are, the weakness of the government will no longer be a source of confidence for the opposition. Instead it will be a catalyst for panic. At the moment, Labour people are outraged by what the coalition is doing to the economy and public services and scornful of the Tories' capacity to solve the nation’s problems. Pretty soon, if the Labour leader cannot capitalise on Tory weakness, all of that anger and contempt will rebound onto him. The uselessness of the coalition is coming to be seen not just as a measure of Cameron’s deficiency, but of Miliband’s inability to press home an advantage.

There is nothing stopping Miliband from doing what he wants with the party – except perhaps Ed himself. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.