Labour's woes mean the bar is being set ever higher for Miliband's conference speech

The pressure is now on Miliband to deliver policies that, as Andy Burnham put it, "knock the others off the pitch".

For the third weekend running, Labour's woes remain the story. In his Sunday Mirror column, John Prescott declares that the party has "massively failed" to get its message across and reminds everyone how it was a different story when he was manning the shop. He writes: "We always planned well ahead with our news grid and during summer I met every day with my team looking at the stories and messages we were going to deliver...I joked with Tony that our poll rating always went up by the time I finished summer watch."

Elsewhere, Maurice Glasman takes to the Mail on Sunday to deliver his mordant judgement on the party's recent performance: "At the very time when Labour should be showing the way ahead, it gives the impression of not knowing which way to turn. When the Labour battle bus should be revving up, it is parked in a lay-by of introspection."

Then there's Caroline Flint in the Observer, who, in response to Miliband's tanking approval ratings, notes that leaders don't need to be popular for their parties to win elections. She's right. History shows that a well-liked (or, more accurately, less disliked) leader is no guarantee of electoral success. In the final poll before the 1979 election, Jim Callaghan enjoyed a 19-point lead over Margaret Thatcher as "the best prime minister" but that didn't stop the Conservatives winning a majority of 44 seats. Similarly, in the 1970 election, Harold Wilson's personal lead over Ted Heath (a 51% approval rating compared to one of 28% for Heath) didn't prevent Labour suffering a decisive defeat. But it's not necessarily helpful for shadow cabinet ministers to give the impression of being resigned to Miliband's unpopularity.

At the same time, the increasingly impressive Tory attack machine has swung into action again, with Chris Grayling responding to Miliband's cost of living gambit by declaring that "Labour’s borrowing would add an extra £2,960 in debt to every working family in Britain. The more you dig, the more their rhetoric on the cost of living rings hollow." Grayling's economics might be risible (as Keynes's paradox of thrift proves) but his attack, which will form the centrepiece of a new Tory offensive this week, is a reminder that it won't be enough for Labour to tell voters that they're "worse off" under the Conservatives. They'll also need to convince them that they'd be better off under Labour. So long as the opposition continues to lose the economic argument, that remains a formidable challenge.

One consequence of all of this is that the bar is being raised ever higher for Miliband's conference address. Last year, a no notes speech and a politically dexterous slogan ("one nation") was enough to send the lobby away impressed but this time he'll need to announce policies that, as Andy Burnham put it, "knock the others off the pitch". I'm told that the theme of the speech will be living standards, with energy and housing two of the candidates for big announcements. What is certain is that it will need to be a policy strong enough to shift the narrative back in Labour's favour (as Osborne's inheritance tax pledge in 2007 did for the Tories).

Like David Cameron, Miliband is a leader who performs best when his back is against the wall. But as Labour's summer of discontent continues, the task ahead of him is looking increasingly daunting.

Ed Miliband delivers his speech on reforming the Labour-trade union link at The St Bride Foundation in London earlier this week. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What Jeremy Corbyn gets right about the single market

Technically, you can be outside the EU but inside the single market. Philosophically, you're still in the EU. 

I’ve been trying to work out what bothers me about the response to Jeremy Corbyn’s interview on the Andrew Marr programme.

What bothers me about Corbyn’s interview is obvious: the use of the phrase “wholesale importation” to describe people coming from Eastern Europe to the United Kingdom makes them sound like boxes of sugar rather than people. Adding to that, by suggesting that this “importation” had “destroy[ed] conditions”, rather than laying the blame on Britain’s under-enforced and under-regulated labour market, his words were more appropriate to a politician who believes that immigrants are objects to be scapegoated, not people to be served. (Though perhaps that is appropriate for the leader of the Labour Party if recent history is any guide.)

But I’m bothered, too, by the reaction to another part of his interview, in which the Labour leader said that Britain must leave the single market as it leaves the European Union. The response to this, which is technically correct, has been to attack Corbyn as Liechtenstein, Switzerland, Norway and Iceland are members of the single market but not the European Union.

In my view, leaving the single market will make Britain poorer in the short and long term, will immediately render much of Labour’s 2017 manifesto moot and will, in the long run, be a far bigger victory for right-wing politics than any mere election. Corbyn’s view, that the benefits of freeing a British government from the rules of the single market will outweigh the costs, doesn’t seem very likely to me. So why do I feel so uneasy about the claim that you can be a member of the single market and not the European Union?

I think it’s because the difficult truth is that these countries are, de facto, in the European Union in any meaningful sense. By any estimation, the three pillars of Britain’s “Out” vote were, firstly, control over Britain’s borders, aka the end of the free movement of people, secondly, more money for the public realm aka £350m a week for the NHS, and thirdly control over Britain’s own laws. It’s hard to see how, if the United Kingdom continues to be subject to the free movement of people, continues to pay large sums towards the European Union, and continues to have its laws set elsewhere, we have “honoured the referendum result”.

None of which changes my view that leaving the single market would be a catastrophe for the United Kingdom. But retaining Britain’s single market membership starts with making the argument for single market membership, not hiding behind rhetorical tricks about whether or not single market membership was on the ballot last June, when it quite clearly was. 

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