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.