Leader: Labour is struggling. Here is how it could do better

Party morale is low, but there is a way to recovery.

Labour enters its penultimate conference before the next general election with party morale lower than at almost any other point since the resounding defeat of 2010. The return of economic growth, coinciding with a sharper and more confident Conservative performance, has narrowed its poll lead to the extent that it can no longer be confident of winning a majority. The party unity that had characterised Ed Miliband’s leadership was fractured by the Falkirk selection debacle, which pitted senior figures such as Labour’s former campaign co-ordinator Tom Watson and the shadow defence secretary, Jim Murphy, against each other, and has yet to return.

Mr Miliband’s trade union reforms, which will require union members to “opt in” to joining the party, are likely to cost Labour roughly £8m in lost affiliation fees but there is little enthusiasm for his ambition to build a mass membership party. Union leaders complain, with some justification, that the party has failed to outline a policy agenda capable of persuading their members to sign up.

Among the electorate, Labour is increasingly regarded with a mixture of indifference and hostility. Much of the press despises the party and does not respect its leader. Even those instinctively loyal to the party complain that they no longer know what it stands for. Having failed to define itself, Labour is in danger of being defined by its opponents – as fiscally profligate, anti-business, opposed to all and any welfare reform and impervious to anxiety over immigration. Mr Miliband continues to trail behind David Cameron as a preferred prime minister, with personal ratings only marginally better than those of Nick Clegg. The Tories enjoy a convincing lead as the most economically competent party. The danger for Labour is that just as it finally unveils its policies, voters will have lost faith in its capacity to deliver them.

If many in Labour appear morose, it is partly because their hopes were raised last year. Mr Miliband’s appropriation of Benjamin Disraeli and his rhetoric of the “one nation” provided Labour with a powerful frame with which to set itself against a socially and economically divisive Conservative Party that has been defeated decisively in Scotland and much of the north of England. But in the months since, Labour has failed to develop the emblematic policies required to make the concept relevant to voters. Instead, “one nation” has become a mere rhetorical appendage, lazily attached to every shadow ministerial brief. It has stood for everything, so it has stood for nothing.

Mr Miliband’s good fortune is that, for reasons largely beyond his control, he retains a better-than-even chance of becoming prime minister after the next election. Because of the vagaries of the British electoral system, Labour needs a lead of just 1 per cent on a uniform swing to win a majority, while the Conservatives require a lead of 7 per cent.

Owing to the defection of left-leaning Liberal Democrats to Labour and of right-leaning Conservatives to the UK Independence Party, Labour’s lead in the polls, although slight, remains consistent. Yet Mr Miliband’s project was supposed to be about much more than scraping over the line with the aid of voters who are resentful of the coalition. It promised an economic and social transformation.

In an interview with the New Statesman last year, the Labour leader spoke ambitiously of his plan to remake British capitalism and to end the pursuit of short-term profit over long-term investment. Twelve months later, he is no closer to explaining how this will be achieved in a globalised era in which capital transcends national boundaries and companies relentlessly seek out low-wage, low-tax locations.

More promising is his preoccupation with declining living standards and the struggles of the so-called squeezed middle. Just as wages fell before the recession, so they continue to fall during the recovery. Earnings are unlikely to outstrip inflation until 2015 at the earliest, leaving the average adult £6,660 worse off. Yet if Mr Miliband is to secure power, it will not be enough to convince voters they are poorer under the coalition. He will need to convince them that they would be better off under Labour. In the 2012 US election, Mitt Romney resurrected Ronald Reagan’s well-known line – “Are you better off now than you were four years ago?” –but the electorate sided with Barack Obama because the numbers were at least moving in the right direction.

To persuade a risk-averse electorate to return Labour to office after just one term in opposition, the party needs to produce transformative policies on wages, jobs, education, housing and childcare that clearly distinguish it from the coalition. It needs a vision of the kind of country it wants Britain to become. How would it reform public services? On the issue of welfare, it needs to recapture the old spirit of William Beveridge and the contributory principle. It ought to think seriously about the EU and Britain’s place within it. It needs to say how it would, in the aftermath of the referendum on Scottish independence, set about reconfiguring the Union. What of the English question, about which Anthony Barnett writes so energetically on page 46?

Once he has established a positive policy agenda, Mr Miliband needs to assemble a team capable of explaining it to a sceptical electorate. The performance of the shadow cabinet has been lacklustre. Mr Miliband urgently needs to shake it up; he needs both new talent and more experience. Before the next election we would like to see the return of Alistair Darling and Alan Johnson to the front bench, if they can be persuaded. Andrew Adonis, the former schools minister and architect of the academies programme, should return with immediate effect to the shadow cabinet. He speaks and writes with power and conviction; his personal story is inspiring. He has been a forceful and persuasive critic of the failures of the coalition. He believes in big projects and is a committed social reformer.

Mr Miliband should also look to a popular and experienced backbench figure such as Margaret Hodge (interviewed by Caroline Crampton on page 15). As chair of the public accounts select committee, Ms Hodge, at the age of 69, has remade herself as an indomitable foe of avarice and waste. Alongside this, he should promote the most promising MPs from the 2010 intake, including Stella Creasy (who outlines her optimistic vision of the future on page 39) and others such as Liz Kendall and Rushanara Ali.

Labour’s charge that recovery has come too late and risks enriching the few at the expense of the many is a potent one. Yet as the excellent plan to extend free school meals to all five-to-seven-year-olds demonstrates, the coalition is already working to blunt the opposition’s claim that it is presiding over a “cost-of-living crisis”. While Mr Miliband can only talk, the government can act. The next week is one of the last opportunities he will have to persuade voters that Labour can answer the questions it first posed.

Ed Miliband speaks at the annual TUC conference. Image: Getty

This article first appeared in the 23 September 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Can Miliband speak for England?

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Here’s everything wrong with Daniel Hannan’s tweet about Saturday’s Unite for Europe march

I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I was going to give up the Daniel Hannan thing, I really was. He’s never responded to this column, despite definitely being aware of it. The chances of him changing his views in response to verifiable facts seem to be nil, so the odds of him doing it because some smug lefty keeps mocking him on the internet must be into negative numbers.

And three different people now have told me that they were blissfully unaware of Hannan's existence until I kept going on about him. Doing Dan’s PR for him was never really the point of the exercise – so I was going to quietly abandon the field, leave Hannan to his delusion that the disasters ahead are entirely the fault of the people who always said Brexit would be a disaster, and get back to my busy schedule of crippling existential terror.

Told you he was aware of it.

Except then he does something so infuriating that I lose an entire weekend to cataloguing the many ways how. I just can’t bring myself to let it go: I am Captain Ahab, and Dan is my great white whale, enraging and mocking me in equal measure through his continued political survival.

I never quite finished that book, but I’m sure it all worked out fine for Ahab, so we might as well get on with it*. Here’s what’s annoying me this week:

And here are some of the many ways in which I’m finding it obnoxious.

1. It only counts as libel if it’s untrue.

2. This sign is not untrue.

3. The idea that “liars, buffoons and swivel-eyed loons” are now in control of the country is not only not untrue, it’s not even controversial.

4. The leaders of the Leave campaign, who now dominate our politics, are 70 per cent water and 30 per cent lies.

5. For starters, they told everyone that, by leaving the EU, Britain could save £350m a week which we could then spend on the NHS. This, it turned out, was a lie.

6. They said Turkey was about to join the EU. This was a lie too.

7. A variety of Leave campaigners spent recent years saying that our place in the single market was safe. Which it turned out was... oh, you guessed.

8. As to buffoons, well, there’s Brexit secretary David Davis, for one, who goes around cheerfully admitting to Select Committees that the government has no idea what Brexit would actually do to the economy.

9. There was also his 2005 leadership campaign, in which he got a variety of Tory women to wear tight t-shirts with (I’m sorry) “It’s DD for me” written across the chest.

10. Foreign secretary Boris Johnson, meanwhile, is definitely a liar AND a buffoon.

11. I mean, you don’t even need me to present any evidence of that one, do you? You just nodded automatically.

12. You probably got there before me, even. For what it's worth, he was sacked from The Times for making up a quote, and sacked from the shadow frontbench for hiding an affair.

13. Then there’s Liam Fox, who is Liam Fox.

14. I’m not going to identify any “swivel-eyed loons”, because mocking someone’s physical attributes is mean and also because I don’t want to get sued, but let’s not pretend Leave campaigners who fit the bill would be hard to find.

15. Has anyone ever managed to read a tweet by Hannan beginning with the words “a reminder” without getting an overwhelming urge to do unspeakable things to an inanimate object, just to get rid of their rage?

16. Even if the accusation made in that picture was untrue, which it isn’t, it wouldn’t count as libel. It’s not possible to libel 52 per cent of the electorate unless they form a distinct legal entity. Which they don’t.

17. Also, at risk of coming over a bit AC Grayling, “52 per cent of those who voted” is not the same as “most Britons”. I don’t think that means we can dismiss the referendum result, but those phrases mean two different things.

18. As ever, though, the most infuriating thing Hannan’s done here is a cheap rhetorical sleight of hand. The sign isn’t talking about the entire chunk of the electorate who voted for Brexit: it’s clearly talking specifically about the nation’s leaders. He’s conflated the two and assumed we won’t notice.

19. It’s as if you told someone they were shit at their job, and they responded, “How dare you attack my mother!”

20. Love the way Hannan is so outraged that anyone might conflate an entire half of the population with an “out of touch elite”, something that literally no Leave campaigners have ever, ever done.

21. Does he really not know that he’s done this? Or is he just pretending, so as to give him another excuse to imply that all opposition to his ideas is illegitimate?

22. Once again, I come back to my eternal question about Hannan: does he know he’s getting this stuff wrong, or is he genuinely this dim?

23. Will I ever be able to stop wasting my life analysing the intellectual sewage this infuriating man keeps pouring down the internet?

*Related: the collected Hannan Fodder is now about the same wordcount as Moby Dick.

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Daniel Hannan. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.