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

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Emily Thornberry heckled by Labour MPs as tensions over Trident erupt

Shadow defence secretary's performance at PLP meeting described as "risible" and "cringeworthy". 

"There's no point trying to shout me down" shadow defence secretary Emily Thornberry declared midway through tonight's Parliamentary Labour Party meeting. Even by recent standards, the 70-minute gathering was remarkably fractious (with PLP chair John Cryer at one point threatening to halt it). Addressing MPs and peers for the first time since replacing Maria Eagle, Thornberry's performance did nothing to reassure Trident supporters. 

The Islington South MP, who voted against renewal in 2007, said that the defence review would be "wide-ranging" and did not take a position on the nuclear question (though she emphasised it was right to "question" renewal). She vowed to listen to colleagues as well as taking "expert advice" and promised to soon visit the Barrow construction site. But MPs' anger was remorseless. Former shadow defence minister Kevan Jones was one of the first to emerge from Committee Room 14. "Waffly and incoherent, cringeworthy" was his verdict. Another Labour MP told me: "Risible. Appalling. She compared Trident to patrolling the skies with spitfires ... It was embarrassing." A party source said afterwards that Thornberry's "spitfire" remark was merely an observation on changing technology. 

"She was talking originally in that whole section about drones. She'd been talking to some people about drones and it was apparent that it was absolutely possible, with improving technology, that large submarines could easily be tracked, detected and attacked by drones. She said it is a question of keeping your eye on new technology ... We don't have the spitfires of the 21st century but we do have some quite old planes, Tornadoes, but they've been updated with modern technology and modern weaponry." 

Former first sea lord and security minister Alan West complained, however, that she had failed to understand how nuclear submarines worked. "Physics, basic physics!" he cried as he left. Asked how the meeting went, Neil Kinnock, who as leader reversed Labour's unilateralist position in 1989, simply let out a belly laugh. Thornberry herself stoically insisted that it went "alright". But a shadow minister told me: "Emily just evidently hadn't put in the work required to be able to credibly address the PLP - totally humiliated. Not by the noise of the hecklers but by the silence of any defenders, no one speaking up for her." 

Labour has long awaited the Europe split currently unfolding among the Tories. But its divide on Trident is far worse. The majority of its MPs are opposed to unilateral disarmament and just seven of the shadow cabinet's 31 members share Jeremy Corbyn's position. While Labour MPs will be given a free vote when the Commons votes on Trident renewal later this year (a fait accompli), the real battle is to determine the party's manifesto stance. 

Thornberry will tomorrow address the shadow cabinet and, for the first time this year, Corbyn will attend the next PLP meeting on 22 February. Both will have to contend with a divide which appears unbridgeable. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.