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

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

0800 7318496