Miliband needs to go much further to restore confidence

The Labour leader must use this moment to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place.

Ed Miliband is at a fork in the road. Plainly he cannot go back, by which I mean he cannot pretend that there is nothing of great significance to see in the row over the Falkirk selection – that it was a rogue case; single bad apple etc.

Len McCluskey’s attack on the Labour leadership – accusing the party of smearing Unite and betraying its trust – bars that route. Besides, every Labour activist, member, MP and any journalist who has spoken much to any of those people knows there is a systemic problem with the opaque way the apparatus has traditionally operated. They also know there has been a concerted effort by Unite to manipulate that process to increase its control over Labour. So when McCluskey implies the party leadership is involved in some nasty plot to be beastly to the union and that Unite, in other words, are the victims of a conspiracy, he is directly challenging Miliband’s authority. He is saying, in effect: "You are not the master of this situation and have no control over how it will end; so let me make this easy – back down, and it ends." Except, of course, it won’t.

So the choice for Miliband is between prolonged managed crisis and full-blown confrontation. It is between hoping that this can be made to go away with some judicious, calculated moves (Miliband’s standard modus operandi) or using the situation to open a whole new chapter in his leadership.

Miliband might think that Tom Watson’s resignation, freezing the Falkirk selection process and ending the system that allows unions to buy up bundles of party membership will signal determination to get a grip. He may believe that the necessary resolve is indicated with some firm words, whether from his own mouth or through a spokesman or shadow cabinet ally, saying dodgy selections will not be tolerated. If so, he is wrong.

Judging by my conversations with some Labour MPs in the past 24 hours, I’d say Miliband has to go much, much further to restore confidence. This isn’t about whether he supports the union link or whether he should be acquiescing to Tory attacks on the left. Nor is it about mechanisms to ensure more "working class" candidates are selected. (Of course, in that argument, class is usually a category of ideology, not background or income. The people defending Unite on those terms aren’t hankering after the next generation of working class Alan Johnsons, Alan Milburns or Hazel Blears.)

What this is really about is Ed Miliband’s capacity to be a leader at all – to emancipate himself from the machine that won him the job in the first place and that has helped consolidate his position, but at a heavy price. A superficial unity was achieved but there was no intellectual or ideological harmony, no reconciliation between factions, no meaningful synthesis of ideas and, as a result, no clarity of direction. As I wrote in this week’s magazine, Miliband is desperate to be a candidate who talks about the future, but the Labour Party is still tangled up in a way of doing politics that reeks of a joyless, airless, stale past.

Worse, it looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, not growing into the job. The cavalier and patronising tone of Watson’s resignation letter has not gone unnoticed. Between the lines, Labour MPs are reading a message of casual disregard: sorry mate, all got a bit tricky, can’t be bothered anymore, good luck with that whole 'leadership' thing, see ya around.

There is a feeling around the parliamentary Labour party today that Watson and McCluskey are threatening to take their ball home if the game can’t be played by their rules. And there is concern that Miliband is looking like the weedy kid in the playground who will be left standing alone, unpicked to play on any team. As one shadow minister, a despairing Ed supporter, put it to me last night: "It’s time to stand up to the bullies now and say clearly, 'f--- off'".

Raising the tone a bit, I’d say this is starting to feel like Ed’s Prince Hal moment. There is the famous scene at the end of Henry IV Part II when the young Prince comes away from his coronation and is accosted by Falstaff – the ribald villain whose company he kept through the years of misspent youth. Falstaff has been waiting for this moment, thinking he will be in with the new King and enjoy grotesque and fabulous privileges. But Hal surprises everyone by cutting his old crony down. "I know thee not old man," he says.

Well, Ed Miliband needs that kind of moment. He needs something that will signal the beginning of a new phase in his leadership; that he has the confidence and the vision to govern in a better, more open, more imaginative way. At the moment it looks as if it is Falstaff who is getting the last word, saying to the new King: "Thanks for the ride but, frankly, I’ve got better things to do." And if Henry IV Pt II had ended like that, there would never have been a King Henry V.

"It looks to many people inside the party and beyond as if Miliband has been shrinking, nor growing into the job." Photograph: Getty Images.

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

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Is Labour really as doomed as it seems? The polls have got it wrong before

Pollsters often overrate Labour's performance. But in two elections, the opposite happened. 

Few moments in the Labour Party’s history can have felt as gloomy as this one. Going into a general election that almost no-one expects them to win, their overall opinion polling is appalling. Labour seems becalmed in the mid-20s; the Conservative Party has rocketed into the mid- to high-40s, and has even touched 50 per cent in one survey.

The numbers underlying those voting intention figures seem, if anything, worse. The Conservatives have huge leads on leadership and economic competence – often even more reliable indicators of election results than the headline numbers. High turnout groups such as the over-65s have turned against Labour in unprecedented numbers. Working-class Brits have swung towards the Conservative, placing once-safe Labour seats in danger. There are limited, but highly suggestive, hints among the data that the swing against Labour is higher in its own marginal seats – a potentially toxic development for any party seeking to hang on to MPs, as Conservatives defending apparently impregnable majorities under John Major in 1997 would attest.

All the while, Labour seems confused about what it is really for. Try as he might, Keir Starmer’s term as Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary has been marred by a fatal confusion and indecision about the extent of the UK’s future engagement with the European Union’s single market. Labour seems neither the party of Brexit nor of Remain, but one determined to irritate as many voters as possible. A similar situation reigns in Scotland, where nationalists under Nicola Sturgeon face Conservative Unionists led by Ruth Davidson, and Labour struggles even to gain a hearing.

Many Labour policy offers – free primary school meals for all, the promise of free university tuition, nationalising the railways, upholding the triple lock of pensions, opposing National Insurance rises for the self-employed – are pleasingly universal, while in isolation appealing to different electoral groups. But together, they represent a massive shift of resources to higher-income Brits that would take huge tax rises to offset. Labour is dangerously close to offering a regressive package under the guise of left-wing radicalism. This is pretty much as far from the British people’s electoral sweet spot as it is possible to imagine.

It is therefore little wonder that Labour lags so far behind Theresa May’s Conservatives. Even some Labour strongholds appear likely to fall - regional polls from London and Wales suggest that many Labour seats will be lost in the party’s remaining citadels. Brutal stories are already coming in from the campaign trail. Rumours fly of truly epochal losses - though it is important to note that other anecdotes seem much less dramatic.

Still, there are other indicators – all too easily missed in the heat of the moment – that point in the other direction. Labour’s performance in local by-elections has been dire for the main opposition party, but the swing towards the Conservatives has been running at "only" just over 2 per cent. The party has certainly suffered some big swings against it, and it has lost wards to the Conservatives in local authorities as varied as Hertfordshire, Harrow and Middlesborough. But there is no evidence that its vote has collapsed on the scale that some of the polling suggests.

Relatively recent history should also give us pause before we write Labour off altogether. Consider the last two general elections in which Labour had near-death experiences, in both 1983 and 2010. Britain’s third party - first the Liberal-SDP Alliance, and then the Liberal Democrats - seemed about to overtake Labour in the popular vote, and steal scores of seats from the bigger progressive party. On both occasions, Labour was able to draw on hitherto unguessed-at wells of cultural identity and strength to pull away right at the campaign’s end. These are in fact the only elections in recent times when the polls have underrated, rather than overestimated, Labour’s likely score. It might be that the same phenomenon emerges this time.

The Conservatives’ huge lead right now has not resulted from a sudden collapse in Labour support, but rather from the United Kingdom Independence Party’s well-publicised implosion. If anything, after about a year of steady decline, the last week or two has seen Labour’s twelve months of slow deflation grind to a halt. Labour’s numbers have even ticked up a point or two as some voters appear to rally around "their" flag. It might be that, as you squeeze the Labour vote down, it becomes more resilient to further shrinkage.

As the Conservatives try to push into Labour’s heartlands, they might find it harder and harder to persuade voters across, from Ukip as well as from Labour. The Conservatives’ image is still far from good in such communities, whatever the underanalysed and separate appeal of PM May as a strong, considered leader in need of a negotiator’s mandate in Europe. Voters might be attracted to May, and repelled by Corbyn - that does not necessarily mean that they will actually vote Conservative. There is little evidence, so far, of any realignment in how voters see themselves – whether they "are" Labour or Conservative, rather than the more ephemeral question of whether they will simply vote for those parties.

Humans always look for patterns. Experts are no exception, while journalists and commentators can always jump to rapid – but wrong – conclusions in the overexcited heat of an election campaign. So it is with the threat of a Labour catastrophe on 8 June. The danger of just such a result is definitely there. But some of the data points we already have, and two recent elections at which Labour walked close to an abyss, cast a little bit of doubt on the inevitability of such an outcome. There are still just over six weeks to go. A Conservative landslide is still quite likely. But it is not certain. We should keep an eye out for the many hints that May’s gamble might end in a rather less crushing victory than we have been led to expect.

Glen O’Hara is Professor of Modern and Contemporary History at Oxford Brookes University. He blogs, in a personal capacity, at Public Policy and the Past. He is the author of a series of books about modern Britain, including The Politics of Water in Post-War Britain (Palgrave Macmillan: forthcoming, May 2017).

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